After leading an unforgiving assault on China’s 5G telecom major Huawei, the Donald Trump administration in the United States is now looking to find a 5G alternative to the Chinese major in Japan.
Initially, it seemed as if the US had lagged in the global 5G battle as the biggest of world’s tech companies located in the US had failed to come up with 5G tech solutions, but now the US is back in the race with a unique alternative- the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) offered by the Japanese internet giant, Rakuten. Now, the US plans to leave behind not only Huawei but also European telecom companies- Ericsson and Nokia.
On Thursday, the US Federal Communications Commission announced that an O-RAN forum which was initially scheduled for March would now be held next month and would feature the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and industry officials from the Japanese internet firm Rakuten as well as American firms like Intel, VMware, etc.
The US is banking heavily on O-RAN technology because it helps Trump’s ‘Buy American’ initiative. In an “open” RAN system, hardware components and software code are decoupled as opposed to a traditional RAN system. As a result, an “open” RAN system allows an interface that promises greater interoperability and more competition. Not all the equipment needs to come from a single supplier.
An O-RAN system is thus different from a traditional one, in which both the hardware and software come from the same supplier. Tareq Amin, Chief Technology Officer, Rakuten Mobile says, “It is a single vendor strategy per domain, which allows us to achieve an easier way of how we do systems integration, and the cost is remarkable when you start separating hardware from software.”
Moreover, Rakuten is expected to launch the world’s first 5G virtualised network based purely on O-RAN in September. Japan’s NEC is going to fulfil the equipment requirements and the Rakuten network is likely to contain software from American firms- Airspan, Qualcomm and Intel.
The O-RAN system offered by the Japanese internet firm, therefore, creates a lot of space for Donald Trump, as different American firms like Cisco and Mavenir have been able to partner with Rakuten. Japan not only offers a cheap alternative to Huawei by cutting network-related costs in an “open” RAN system, but also allows more and more American firms to play a big role in developing 5G solutions.
Opinion within the American strategic circles is also changing and an O-RAN system led by Japan is likely to be preferred over the traditional, hardware-based telecom operators like the Stockholm-based Ericsson or Espoo, Finland-based Nokia.
In February, the US Attorney General William Barr had, for example, said that the US and its allies must consider taking a “controlling stake” in Nokia and Ericsson to counteract the Chinese tech, major Huawei. He had also dismissed RAN as a “pie in the sky”. However, in May, Barr said, “Although the ‘Open RAN’ approach is not a solution to our immediate problem,” it “holds promise and should be explored. We can win the race, but we must act now.”
Clearly, the “open” RAN no longer seems like a “pie in the sky” with Japan’s promise to launch the first such 5G network in September itself. The corporate leaders within the US are also pinning their hopes on the use of next-gen radio access.
In May, transnational tech giants like Google, Samsung, Cisco and Vodafone joined hands and urged the American lawmakers to fund O-RAN. This group of companies that also included AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, Rakuten Mobile and Telefonica have also formed an Open RAN policy.
Japan and the US are thus coming together to take on not only Huawei but also European firms- Nokia and Ericsson who were winning most of the bids to develop nationwide 5G networks once Huawei started getting shunned in different parts of the world. But with the US choosing Japan over Europe, it is clear that it is Asia and not Europe that will ultimately lead the upcoming 5G revolution in the tech world.