We all know that 5G is taking a long time to get here. It’s a big infrastructure challenge that is complicated by some geopolitics and suspicion about Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications provider that sells the most 5G networking equipment globally.
Now, 31 mostly U.S.-based companies have created a coalition to push for a new kind of 5G infrastructure that involves less complicated hardware and more complex software. The coalition says this approach will foster innovation and competition.
I spoke with Doug Brake, the director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that works on this kind of thing. He says a more virtualized approach offers a lot of benefits. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Doug Brake: You can do more in software and iterate more quickly than you can having to individually configure all of these pieces of equipment throughout the network. Another policy imperative that we’re seeing is trying to make a change to the market that is not so easily cornered by a Chinese company [like] Huawei. When you have these high-margin, expensive, single-integrated pieces of equipment, it’s relatively easy for a single company to come to grow more and more market share, especially when it’s backed by some of the unfair trade policies that China has used to push Huawei to where it is today.
Molly Wood: Will it require less hardware or less infrastructure installation overall?
Brake: This is something of a misconception. When people hear the term “virtualization,” it makes it sound like the network itself is completely ephemeral or up in the cloud. It’s only the functionalities of the network that is virtualized and run in software. It still has to run on hardware, so it still requires pieces of equipment out in the field, [equipment] that is hopefully cheaper, more innovative and leads to a market dynamic that sees a flourishing of smaller, U.S.-led startups that are interested in providing this type of equipment.
Wood: It sounds like we would have to replicate a fair bit of infrastructure, right? It’s still an expensive 5G proposition. Does this slow down rollout?
Brake: I don’t think it slows down rollout. I think that this is part of the ongoing transition to 5G. We’re seeing ongoing deployment, and also evolution as it makes sense to replace the existing 4G network. More and more 5G equipment will be built out, so it’s not a question of starting over, but this is part of the continual evolution as we make the shift to 5G.
Wood: It’s so interesting because on the one hand, the way you’re describing that technology makes sense. On the other hand, it feels like “OK, we’re changing the direction of this potentially, globally, economically crucial technology to benefit U.S. companies.” Is the rest of the world going to agree that this is the way forward and this is how we should do it?
Brake: It is already ongoing. This is an area of transition that wireless operators around the world have been interested in for some time. There are a number of coalitions that have been focused on the technical aspects of trying to define standardized interfaces between the components of this equipment. It’s just now that recently the administration has found this as a real opportunity in their ongoing battle with Huawei.
Wood: Fundamentally, is it a technical issue or a trade issue?
Brake: In one level, it’s about getting over these technical hurdles. But more broadly speaking, a lot of 5G, especially the geopolitical dynamics around 5G in China, come down to trade issues. Part of that is convincing like-minded allies that this is a real challenge going forward, and how we can be setting ourselves up for a healthier market for wireless telecommunications equipment in the future.
Wood: What are the security implications here? The system that you’re describing, the virtualized 5G, is it more secure or less secure? Is that a huge part of the calculation, or not?
Brake: There is this long-term concern [that] if China continues to — China, and really, Huawei — gain more and more control over the critical infrastructure globally, that’s sort of a long-term challenge that I think this helps change the dynamic of when you talk about narrow, specific security issues. Having these virtualized networks, where operators can control more of the network through software, gives them a lot more visibility and control over what’s happening on the network. They can see if something looks amiss, if somebody has access to something that they’re not supposed to, for example. At the same time, moving a whole telecommunications network into software really increases the complexity. There are potential problems that could arise with this transition and just the sheer amount of complications that it introduces.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
Speaking of Huawei, the U.S. on Friday announced new restrictions on selling smartphone chips to the Chinese telecom. Officials said that companies using U.S. chip-making equipment, even if they’re not based here, have to get a license if they want to sell chips to Huawei. That caused Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. to stop taking new orders from Huawei, even though it’s their second-biggest customer. As it happens, TSMC has also announced it will build a $12 billion plant in Arizona. As for Huawei, the company said Monday that these new rules could be a problem. But some experts said there are still plenty of loopholes.
Back to the 5G coalition, called the Open RAN Policy Coalition. Microsoft is one of its founding members. And the company is investing in cloud communications software with 5G in mind. Last week, Microsoft announced that it would buy a U.K.-based company called Metaswitch Networks that supplies Sprint and British telecoms with cloud-based voice and data services and offers 5G networking technologies, too. It’s the second cloud telecommunications, and specifically 5G, company that Microsoft has acquired in the last month or so.
Amazon has made some similar investments. I find it interesting that if Microsoft or Amazon or Google eventually have these offerings that let big companies offer cloud-based communications, like 5G service specifically, then maybe this idea of a more open architecture and interoperable networks means that instead of buying phone or communications services from Verizon or AT&T down the road, you could get it from who knows who else. Burger King, Facebook, GoPro or 7-Eleven. I don’t know. Why not? 5G promises everything else under the sun, so might as well spitball a little bit.
Correction (May 29, 2020): A previous version of this story misidentified Microsoft’s involvement in the Open RAN Policy Coalition. It is a founding member. The story has been corrected.
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