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O-RAN Alliance: Nokia downplays decision to take breather as critics worry over fate of key industry groups

Backs away from potential Entity List security issues related to Chinese alliance members

Ericsson has voiced its concern over "progress" within the O-RAN Alliance, days after Nokia called a technical timeout with the group amid "compliance-related" concerns.

Nokia's withdrawal comes after some members of the open radio access network industry group were added to the US government's "Entity List," which fingers organisations the country claims pose a threat to America's security.

News of the Finnish telecoms giant's decision to suspend work with the O-RAN Alliance – a group of telcos and vendors that work together to test and work on open standards and software around telecoms infrastructure kit – emerged last week following a report by Politico – which Nokia confirmed.

Nokia said its decision to step back from O-RAN was due to a "compliance-related matter... regarding the O-RAN contributors included in the US Entity list" – the US government's security-based trade restriction list that Huawei was placed on from 2019.

Chinese firms Kindroid, which was added to the US Entity List in July, Pythium and Inspur are all members of the O-RAN Alliance.

The decision is being interpreted as a move by Nokia to insulate itself from the possibility of supply chain ramifications from US authorities.

In a statement to The Reg Nokia was keen to point out that it remained fully behind the idea of open radio access networks, which some believe have the potential to improve competition in the sector, make networks more dynamic and keep a lid on costs (and which have been enthusiastically embraced by some governments as they institute rip and replace mandates on operators for Huawei kit).

Instead, Nokia's concerns centre appear to centre on the recently designated status of some of the members of the O-RAN Alliance.

A spokesperson for Nokia told El Reg: "Nokia's commitment to O-RAN and the O-RAN Alliance of which we were the first major vendor to join, remains strong. At this stage, we are simply pausing technical activity with the Alliance as some participants have been added to the US entities list and it is prudent for us to allow the Alliance time to analyse and come to a resolution."

Huawei - the third of the Big 3 in the 5G hardware and software world - never signed up to the alliance, declaring itself unconvinced by the merits of white-box hardware and standardised interfaces.

But it seems that Nokia may not be alone in flagging concerns. A spokesperson for Ericsson – another major player which also believes in the value of openness in mobile networks and rates itself as an "active participant" in the O-RAN Alliance – told us: "We operate according to strict controls recognising that companies are added to and removed from the Entity List on a regular basis. The current situation may hamper progress within the O-RAN Alliance and we are keen to see the situation resolved as quickly as possible."

On the face of it, both statements suggest that any issues facing the O-RAN Alliance are merely temporary. But according to some industry experts, the issues raised by Nokia could be more deep-rooted.

A research note from a telecoms analyst at Strand Consulting slapped a wide-angle lens on matters rather than looking at things just from the viewpoint of individual companies. And it suggests that the numbers of Chinese companies involved in the trade group could prove problematic.

"Given that Chinese state-owned companies comprise more than one-fifth of the membership of the O-RAN Alliance, it is essentially impossible to limit Chinese government influence in the organization," it said. "As such, non-Chinese companies may reconsider their membership in the O-RAN Alliance to reduce risk and improve security."

It went on: "If anything, more companies will likely follow in Nokia’s footsteps to pause, if not end, their membership in groups like the O-RAN Alliance."

As Politico noted, the US has previously given licences to American firms sitting on the same key industry groups as Huawei — including GSMA, ETSI, ISO and ITU — to ensure they could continue their work without falling afoul of the entity list rules. This may well become the case for the alliance.

The group told The Reg: "The O-RAN ALLIANCE is aware of concerns regarding participants that may be subject to U.S. export regulations, and is working with O-RAN participants to ensure compliance with U.S. law." ®

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