5G, Europe and the US – Where do we stand?

The western allies have agreed to kick China out of the picture when it comes to 5G infrastructure. What they haven’t agreed on though, is how on earth they’re going to replace its carriers, and what’s to be done to rapidly upgrade the now ‘China-less’ networks.

By western allies, I refer to the US and Europe in this case, where what was once a preoccupation regarding the dominance of Chinese companies, namely the likes of Huawei and ZTE, is now a preoccupation about the void its absence leaves, and the fact that said void is disproportionally being filled by two European competitors, Nokia and Ericsson.

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In fact, this is what has led to a new, more internal conflict, so to speak, in that the allies now must resolve the several issues that face them – mainly; competition, security, and political dominance. Because eliminating the Chinese threat is one thing, but that doesn’t mean that the friendly neighbours are planning to start sleeping in the same bed all of a sudden. US authorities are still worried, and rightly so, that whereas Europe has two major 5G equipment manufacturers, it has none.

These worries are what led to the so-called Open RAN proposal. Open RAN promises to be open architecture, meaning that though Chinese involvement is still limited, reliance on the big European manufacturers can be dented as smaller US and Japanese companies are given space to develop their own networks and equipment.

It sounds nice on the façade, but it doesn’t come without its disadvantages either. European security experts especially, have often highlighted the many security concerns that this type of system brings with it, and say it will only serve to cause more dents to occur in the already, comparatively weak, ‘western 5G bubble’. Such doubts may of course be quelled (or made worse) when EU cybersecurity agencies publish their investigation of OpenRAN vulnerabilities.

Last week, Arne Schönbohm, president of the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), presented a security assessment of German cyber officials on Open RAN, saying that;

“security by design has not yet been sufficiently specified in the existing open RAN, and in some cases, it exhibits security risks.”

And of course, Ericsson and Nokia have not been ones to shy away from criticising the concept, which leads to the question – are these concerns really as bad as they seem, judging by the fact that its major critics are in fact the parties that stand to lose the most from its adoption?

Well, not necessarily. Their reasons for worrying about the system are very valid, as discussed in the above-linked article on Open RAN – but there also remains the worrying spectre that several Chinese tech companies, some even facing restrictions due to their close ties to Beijing, form part of the major group setting Open RAN specifications.

So this is where Europe and the US alike have to be careful. Because though the political will to push back against Xi’s China has not yet lost its steam, there’s no guarantee that this will always be the case. Many lost out when Huawei was pushed out for example, and though European leaders might be satisfied with the position of power that the anti-China campaign gives them, they mustn’t forget that American politicians are not exactly well known for their tolerance of being on the lower end of a power imbalance, and if nothing is done to solve the issues facing a China-less west, there’s no guarantee that the alliance won’t crack.

So the question remains, will an improved version of OpenRAN be the start of a new, expansive 5G market for the West, or will the saturated market fight it out till the end?


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