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China Mobile restates support for OpenRAN

The world’s biggest operator, China Mobile, has publicly stated strong support for the OpenRAN initiative, which seeks to diversify the vendor ecosystem.

The comments were made during Light Reading’s Open RAN Digital Symposium, in which Chih-Lin I, China Mobile’s Chief Scientist for Wireless Technologies, said in reference to OpenRAN: “We believe in the long run that it will provide the whole ecosystem with lower costs and higher efficiency. With the greater diversity and flexibility, we believe we’ll enjoy higher security in more ways than one and be able to enjoy faster innovation.”

While the comments by themselves are fairly generic, it’s still notable that a Chinese operator should be so unequivocal in its support of OpenRAN. Firstly China Mobile has privileged access to two of the world’s premier telecoms kit vendors in the form of Huawei and ZTE. Since the US and its allies decided to shun the two of them, they have become increasingly devoted to the world’s biggest 5G rollout in China.

However much the likes of Nokia and, to a lesser extent, Ericsson insist they’re fans of OpenRAN, the fact remains it’s a massive threat to their business models. Much of the superficial point of the technology is to increase vendor competition in the RAN, with the assumption being that will drive prices down. There are plenty of reason why the laws of supply and demand may not apply in this case, however, as there are still likely to be competitive bottlenecks in the component and integration supply chains.

And then there’s the geopolitical soap-opera. One of the major drivers of OpenRAN growth is the desire by the US and its allies to re-inject plurality to the RAN vendor ecosystem, having created the perceived problem through its China ban. For China Mobile to be supportive of such an initiative is therefore somewhat counter-intuitive.

But when you factor in the fact that Chih-Lin I is also the co-chair of the O-RAN Alliance’s technical steering committee, it all starts to make a bit more sense. It was the rules regarding US hostility to Chinese companies that cause Nokia to have a bit of a panic attack a few months ago, before some kind of O-RAN Alliance fudge steadied its nerves.

If OpenRAN does eventually turn out to be beneficial for operators – something that has yet to be conclusively demonstrated – then of course the world’s biggest one will want a piece of the action. While China seems to have retaliated against Sweden by marginalising Ericsson from the domestic 5G rollout, there don’t seem to be any sanctions currently in place that would prevent China Mobile from buying kit from Intel, Mavenir, or other US companies.

The Light Reading report understandably focuses on what this might all mean for Huawei. By now it must be heavily reliant on China Mobile for revenue, especially when you consider what has happened to its consumer business. Huawei is getting the majority of China Mobile’s 5G work these days, but the presence of OpenRAN would presumable eat into that, further impacting the vendor’s troubled balance sheet.

To date, Huawei hasn’t even gone through the motions of pretending to embrace OpenRAN and apparently remains deeply sceptical about the whole idea. We don’t know the extent to which China Mobile is having its vendor choices dictated to it by the Chinese state, but it’s hard to imagine much domestic political enthusiasm for OpenRAN.

So it’s intriguing to see that China Mobile not only remains a core player in the O-RAN Alliance, but a vocal cheerleader for the technology. At the very least, the comments indicate the Chinese telecoms sector may be less intimate with its government than is widely assumed. But, then again, how sure can we be China Mobile didn’t seek sign-off from the CCP before making such comments?


2 comments

  1. Avatar Rodolfo 03/12/2021 @ 1:49 pm

    Thank you Scott for this information. The need shared by China Mobile will accelerate this new discussed Open RAN technology! Will be a good opportunity to overcome the current challenges that CSP sees: integration/design/security/ and guarantee QOs/SLAs.

    ecosystem and Alliance are the only way forward for a suitable and reliable technology!

  2. Avatar China-watcher 03/12/2021 @ 5:43 pm

    CMCC may primarily be interested in innovative algorithms for RIC (as part of O-RAN). Awarding an ever-increasing share of radio access network rollouts to Chinese players consistent over the last 3 decades as part of national development agenda does not seem to underline a perceived need for vendor diversity on the infrastructure side.

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