Feb 5, 2020 - Technology

White House floats a new 5G plan to counter Huawei

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In its latest move to counteract a perceived threat from Huawei, the Trump administration proposed a new approach to 5G networks that would rely on virtualization and other features to give U.S. companies a broader role, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Right now, none of Huawei's traditional networking gear rivals are U.S.-based, and their products are typically more expensive than Huawei's.

How it works: The idea is to push for open software that could run on nearly any standard hardware, with Microsoft, AT&T and Dell among those said to be involved in the effort, per the Wall Street Journal.

Oracle confirmed it is also among the companies interested in taking part.

  • "Oracle is a major supplier of 5G core network technology," Oracle's Ken Glueck told Axios. "We are involved in the White House effort and we think U.S.-based technology companies have a lot to contribute to the 5G build out."

The big picture: The U.S. has been going to its allies and asking them not to use Huawei gear in their networks, but affordable Western alternatives to the Chinese products haven't been easy to find.And some technical trends are already moving in the direction of the new U.S. proposal — notably, the shift away from dedicated products that perform a specific role in the network and toward virtualizing different functions using software that can run on commodity hardware, such as servers made by companies like HP and Dell, using chips from Intel and Nvidia.

  • "There is a movement where you can definitely commoditize the hardware and start to use open source for the radio access piece," industry consultant Chetan Sharma told Axios.

Meanwhile: Facebook has been spearheading an effort for several years known as Telecom Infra Project (TIP), designed to allow for a more open, software-based approach to cellular networking.

  • That effort, though, is still in its early stages and has seemed mostly focused on lowering costs for the developing market, Sharma said.
  • Interest has been strong from European carriers, many of whom participate in both developed and developing markets, including from Telefonica and Vodafone.
  • U.S. interest has been more limited. Sprint has participated in TIP, but has not made firm plans to adopt the approach. There has also been interest from carriers in Latin America and Asia.

Yes, but: Making 5G gear still requires a fair amount of know-how that's specific to the cellular industry.

  • "It's not easy, " Sharma said. "You have to deal with hundreds of legacy elements that over the years Nokia and Ericsson have mastered and fine-tuned."
  • Even if such hardware were combined with software from a startup or licensed from one of the existing cellular network providers, it would take time, Sharma said.
  • "The desire to do something is today," Sharma said. "However, this has not been completely tested out in the real world."

History lesson: This is at least the third plan that has been floated from within the Trump administration to kickstart 5G and ensure the U.S. plays a leading role.

  • Back in 2018 (as first reported by Axios) there was talk of nationalizing 5G in an effort to outrace China.
  • Then, last year, there was a notion raised of building a wholesale 5G network that all players could use.

So far, though, it is the industry's existing approaches that have prevailed — with 5G rolling out from all the major carriers, starting last year, using traditional equipment vendors like Nokia, Ericsson and to some degree, Samsung.

Go deeper

Team Trump's 5G misfires

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration, eager to win the 5G race and outflank China's Huawei, has run one plan after another up the flagpole — but found it hard to keep any of them flying.

Driving the news: White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow aired a new approach Tuesday to speed the emergence of U.S.-led alternatives to Huawei. Attorney General William Barr dismissed the same idea Thursday as "pie in the sky."

Barr scoffs at White House's anti-Huawei 5G approach

Attorney General William Barr. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr on Thursday dismissed a new White House-led effort to build 5G using homegrown equipment and said the government should instead consider investing in Nokia or Ericsson to counter the threat of Huawei dominating the next-generation networks.

The big picture: While the Trump administration broadly agrees about the need to develop a clear and cohesive 5G policy and keep Chinese equipment out of the forthcoming networks, there has been widespread disagreement about how to get there.

Huawei loses a round against Congress in federal court

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Huawei lost a round in court Tuesday, with a federal judge ruling that Congress was within its rights to exclude agencies and contractors from buying gear from Huawei and ZTE.

The big picture: This is one battle in the larger and more multifaceted conflict between Washington and Beijing that's playing out in courts, through trade negotiations and in public rhetoric.