The 5G working group includes Chinese companies sanctioned by the US and Nokia fears they too could face penalties as a result of ongoing collaboration

Nokia, one of the first major vendors to join the O-RAN Alliance, has reportedly suspended its participation due to fears that ongoing activity alongside sanctioned Chinese companies in the group could see the Finnish vendor also face penalties.

The O-RAN Alliance is a working group dedicated to creating specifications for open RAN technology, i.e., open radio access network architecture. Formed back in 2018 by AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DOCOMO and Orange, the group has grown considerably as open RAN has become more exciting within the industry, now comprising 29 operators and many more vendors. 

Nokia was one of the first vendors to sign up to the Alliance, co-chairing the workgroup that is defining the open front-haul interface and the near real-time RAN intelligent controller (RIC) technology.

Now, however, it seems that geopolitics could be interfering with the working group’s harmony, with anonymous sources speaking to Politico suggesting that tensions between Chinese firms and the US have forced Nokia to pause its operations within the O-RAN Alliance.

“We have no choice but to suspend all of our technical work activities,” said the sources, who explained that some of the Alliance’s members were currently facing sanctions from the US government and that Nokia did not want to attract similar penalties. The sources described the situation as a “compliance-related matter … regarding the O-RAN contributors included in the U.S. entity list.”

The Chinese firms in question here are Kindroid, Phytium and Inspur. Kindroid and Phytium have both been placed on the US’s infamous ‘entity list’, disallowing US companies from doing business with them without a licence. Server manufacturer Inspur, meanwhile, fell afoul of an Executive Order by President Donald Trump last year, banning US investments in the company.

“Nokia’s commitment to ORAN and the ORAN 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,” said Nokia in an official statement.

This situation is not without precedent. Back in 2019, when sanctions on Huawei were first applied, many companies serving alongside the Chinese vendor on various industry groups feared they too could face sanctions due to ongoing collaboration. For many of these more well-known groups, such as the GSMA, ETSI, ISO, and the ITU, exemptions were quickly granted to alleviate concerns. 

The O-RAN Alliance, sadly, received no such exemption – at least not yet. 

“The O-RAN Alliance is working to create standards to enable open and intelligent RAN architecture. To address Nokia’s concern, we reasonably expect that the White House will clarify things and issue licenses to allow companies to sit on the same key industry groups as Huawei in the O-RAN Alliance, just like it has done in the past for the operators’ association GSMA, standard-setting bodies like IEEE, ETSI and ISO and U.N. telecoms group ITU, without being in violation of the entity list rules,” said Eugina Jordan, VP of Marketing at Parallel Wireless, another member of the Alliance. 

While the O-RAN Alliance is, legally speaking, not a standardisation body likes the previous exemptions, the comments from Jordan above seem valid nonetheless. The US is positioning open RAN technology as an attractive alternative for Huawei in various markets around the world, therefore it seems unlikely that they would deliberately hamstring the developmental efforts of one of the technology’s leading proponent groups.

Nokia, it seems, are simply being extra cautious here and will wait for the US government to clarify the matter before taking further action.


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