Nokia walks the walk about its RAN to play on Uncle Sam’s China fears

It pays not to be Huawei, and the US military can be lucrative, too

Comment A vendor establishing a business unit dedicated to government sales is not new or unusual. But Finnish telecommunications giant Nokia’s decision to do so in the USA this week tells a bigger story about Washington’s paranoia regarding the security of critical communications infrastructure security.

Over the past few administrations, the US government has worked tirelessly to rid its national networks of Chinese-made equipment from the likes of Huawei and ZTE over fears its presence could give Beijing insights into, or access to, networks relied on by the United States and its allies.

The US has gone so far as to add both Huawei and ZTE to the US Entities list, effectively barring them from importing US-developed technologies and issuing a rip and replace order for American telcos. If that weren't enough, the US has pressured its allies to follow suit, a prospect that many, including the German government have warned would be very financially painful.

Huawei, for its part, has fervently denied allegations its products include backdoors or allow meddling by the Chinese state, but American concerns aren't without merit. Chinese laws require businesses to share information with Beijing, so it's conceivable that even if Huawei isn't doing anything untoward today, it could be forced to do so in the future.

As we learned with the outing of the PRISM program by Edward Snowden, the United States government is intimately aware of just how effective a surveillance apparatus can be if you're able to tap into commercial networks.

Where possible, the US government has a habit of favoring home-developed, and better yet, home-manufactured equipment when it comes to critical infrastructure. Exercising that this poses something of a headache when it comes to cellular networks because American companies are not big players in radio access network (RAN) technology — the stuff that actually goes on the cell towers. That field is dominated by foreign players.

RAN deployments by US carriers most feature kit from Samsung, Nokia, and Ericsson.

Nokia appears to be exploiting this desire for non-Chinese kit with this week’s launch of its Federal Solutions unit, a dedicated entity with the explicit mission sell to Uncle Sam.

Alongside your typical telecommunications tech, like IP routing, optical line systems, microwave, and 5G, Nokia is also pushing "tactical private wireless" systems, which it acquired from Fenix Group in late 2023.

According to Nokia, the Fenix technology was designed to "provide high-speed, low latency data connections to devices and users simultaneously," with an emphasis on military applications – in other words, a couple of ruggedized LTE radios that can fit into a backpack or personnel carrier.

"With Nokia Federal Solutions, we are strengthening our commitment to support the US Government by investing in a dedicated entity to provide the technology, expertise, and local presence to help US Federal Agencies achieve their mission goals," Mike Loomis, president of the newly formed division said in a canned statement issued this week.

This is Nokia seeing an opportunity to improve its prospects of sales the Uncle Sam by tailoring its portfolio and sales team to the federal government's needs.

This specialization and all that "tactical" networking kit will, no doubt, come at a substantial premium over conventional gear. But who can really put a price on national security?

If any of this sounds familiar, that might be because Nokia's rival, Sweden's Ericsson, has already made clear its own plans to sell 5G gear to the US military.

Last spring, Ericsson's top executive, opined about the military opportunity, highlighting the company's ability to meet requirements like domestic manufacturing and stipulations regarding openness. Of course, that assumes that the military brass aren't put off by the fact Ericsson took bribes from interests in China, Indonesia, Kuwait and Vietnam in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That offense cost the company over a billion dollars in fines.

Having said all that, playing on a combination of trust, technological superiority, and systemic fear to line your pockets is about as American as it gets. ®

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