Industry Executives Weigh In on How Trade War Impacts 5G

Article By : Brian Santo

Cisco, Qualcomm, and Inseego tried to explain how trade policy is affecting 5G technology. It didn't go so well⋯

Executives from Qualcomm, Cisco, and Inseego participated in a webinar about “the impact of rapidly evolving government policy” on the 5G market. They divulged little that’s new, but did provide commentary on current events that was probably unintelligible to all but those closely following President Trump’s trade war against China, including his crusade to cripple Huawei.

Given the subject, it was both fascinating and enervating watching the panelists do backflips to avoid saying “Huawei” or comment on the President’s trade machinations. For instance, they completely elided the fact that the President recently blind-sided the semiconductor industry again when he expanded the so-called entity list – the list of Chinese companies with which U.S. companies cannot trade without special permission (see:US Cracks Down On Huawei’s Access To Chips).

Say goodbye to billions of dollars more in sales.


US Cracks Down On Huawei’s Access To Chips

New Open RAN Group Brings Uncertainty for Telcos

It’s hard to fault the panelists for their circumspection, though. Trump’s trade policies are incoherent but a) pointing that out is dangerous because Trump is so wildly vindictive and b) Cisco, Qualcomm and Inseego may all yet benefit from the chaos he’s creating, so why even risk a)?

The presenters alluded to open radio access network (Open RAN, or O-RAN) technology, and spent a good chunk of time explaining the benefits and drawbacks of open technology, which should be so well known to EE Times’ audience that I’ll do some eliding too. What I will go over is a lot of context the session panelists didn’t bother with, in order to explain one of the few interesting things any of them did say.

Technology is rarely overtly political, but O-RAN has become a potent, albeit scattershot, weapon in the trade war, for reasons complicated enough that the role that O-RAN plays remains elusive even to some policy wonks.

The main suppliers of 5G RAN equipment have been Huawei (the market leader), Nokia and Ericsson. Meanwhile, Samsung recently caught up with the pack largely by supplying its domestic market.

Technologists were pursuing open RAN technology for 5G before Trump initiated his trade war with China. They even had a trade organization, the O-RAN Alliance. They’ve developed open standards for 5G open RAN elements — notably small cells. Qualcomm has been making and selling chips for 5G O-RAN small cells for some time. Dean Brenner, senior vice president, spectrum strategy and technology policy at Qualcomm, said during the presentation that there might be as many as 10 companies that will be marketing O-RAN small cells by the end of the year.

Why is that political? Trump is pressuring allies to not use Huawei equipment. The other major suppliers — Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung — together cannot produce enough 5G small cells quickly enough to make up the shortfall in supply if Huawei is blocked from participating in the market. Our allies who accede to the pressure to cancel their business with Huawei need assurance there will be an alternative source, or sources, for 5G RAN infrastructure. O-RAN 5G vendors should start filling that bill.

If there’s any doubt this is part of the Trump Administration’s strategy, recall that some of the members of the O-RAN Alliance recently founded a new, separate, apparently redundant organization called the Open RAN Policy Coalition, headed by a policy wonk who recently worked at both the Trump Administration’s Commerce Department and at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), one of the U.S. government’s communications policy agencies.

So — open RAN creates the alternatives to Huawei. But as noted, O-RAN technology is a scattershot weapon. Those new 5G O-RAN small cell vendors set to debilitate Huawei will also be alternatives to Nokia and Ericsson, who we don’t want to actively hurt.

The panelists skipped all of that, but without that information one of the most interesting comments made by Bob Everson, senior director, mobility and 5G architecture at Cisco, is meaningless. Without referring directly to Ericsson and Nokia, he noted that the US is considering “maybe they should invest in one of these companies to get them on a more stable footing.”

We don’t suggest that, he quickly added.

Remember, Americans coined the term “collateral damage.”

The panelists also covered the latest on “rip-and-replace.” What’s that? Ready for more context? This will be brief.

As of 2018, 25 percent of rural wireless carriers had installed Huawei equipment, according to the Rural Wireless Association. The Trump Administration wants them all to tear out everything they’ve installed from Huawei and ZTE. That’s rip-and-replace.

The presenters in the webinar noted that Congress is currently considering a measure to cover the expenses of the policy, which will likely be folded into bill being prepared for Covid-19 pandemic relief. We already knew that.

What’s new — and what the webinar panelists didn’t mention — is that those rural operators stand to be short-changed. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had requested $2 billion for rip-and-replace. As of this writing, the GOP was allocating $1 billion to cover expenses. The contents of the final bill have yet to be hashed out.

As for the 5G rollout itself, Brenner said that the 5G rollout was happening faster than the 4G rollout.

That assertion that is hard to credit. AT&T and Verizon are both installing 5G RAN equipment here and there, but both of their rollouts seem fitful, especially considering they both made promises they’d start blanketing the country starting in 2018 – you’d have thought they’d be almost done by now. Part of the delay is that they bought spectrum in which radio waves propagate poorly, and it took them a while to figure out what to do about that.

Or perhaps the reference is to No. 3 carrier T-Mobile, which bought radically more robust spectrum, and is happily crowing that it has the most extensive 5G network in the US.

Brenner opened the session forcefully arguing that 5G systems will be secure, because the technology was built from the ground up for security. Perhaps he was hammering on the point because the Trump Administration insists that 5G equipment from Huawei is not secure. That’s what you call mixed messaging. The panelists did not set aside time for questions-and-answers. I wanted to ask how a standard built from the ground up for security could be compromised before it ever got installed.

If there was one true revelation in the 5G presentation, it was that networking companies are as much in the dark as anyone else about the security problems the Trump Administration allege exist in Huawei 5G equipment.

“The government’s made a determination based on intelligence that they’re privy to that there are some vendors that present an unacceptable risk to being in this communications network,” said Everson. “Obviously, I don’t have that specific intelligence. We trust the work they’re doing. We’ve seen their public statement. Suffice to say they believe those risks are real enough…”

Everson was echoing the moderator, Will Townsend, senior analyst, Moor Insights & Strategy, who said “We just have to trust our lawmakers.”

Here’s the problem: we absolutely cannot trust this Administration. The President is a pathological liar. That should be enough to distrust both his charges and anyone who blithely asserts that we just have to trust him.

Let’s not forget that Trump started the trade war with China because he assumed our trade deficit with that country is a problem, which is debatable (because it was debated), and he believed that if he levied tariffs on Chinese goods the Chinese would pay those tariffs directly to the US, which was simply wrong.

Ever since, different constituencies have been trying to retrofit excuses why blundering into a trade war with China was actually a good idea after all, with Trump glomming on to each.

U.S. electronics companies have succeeded in bolting on the charge that Huawei steals IP. Huawei might in fact be stealing IP all the time, but nobody will say what it is, or when. The Trump Administration had a chance to truly nail Huawei on IP theft, but the legal proceedings it initiated do little more than rehash the history of litigation against Huawei – some of which, if anyone is being honest – is not that damning.

I’ve been watching Trump and his advisor Rudolph Giuliani for a very long time – they both know that tying up someone in court for as long as you can drag out a case is in itself often enough of a punishment; maybe that’s what’s going on.

Or Huawei might, in fact, have found some way to compromise the security of the 5G standard that Brenner went to great lengths to assure was built for security from the ground up. But nobody outside the Trump Administration knows for sure.

This is not the way to run a trade war. And is this the way we’re running business from now on?

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