(Bloomberg) -- With the U.S. campaign against Huawei Technologies Co. threatening to disrupt the rollout of 5G wireless networks, phone carriers are joining forces to develop technology that can reduce their reliance on a handful of powerful equipment suppliers.
The Chinese company dominates the European market for telecommunications gear, ahead of Ericsson AB of Sweden and Finland’s Nokia Oyj. Governments are weighing whether to follow the U.K. and limit Huawei’s share of 5G networks over concerns -- denied by the company -- that it represents a security risk.
If they do, it could knock the progress of 5G off course: The big three have designed a lot of their wireless gear so it can’t easily be integrated in the same network, much like an electric toothbrush only works with its own brush heads. So building 5G with Nokia or Ericsson kit on top of Huawei 4G infrastructure is fraught with complexity and costs.
Companies including Deutsche Telekom AG and Vodafone Group Plc have decided to combine separate projects to develop a more standardized, flexible network architecture that would make it easier for carriers to use products from multiple vendors, according to people familiar with the matter.
Under the plans, the O-RAN industry alliance, backed by Deutsche Telekom and AT&T Inc. among others, will align its work with the Telecom Infra Project, which was started by Facebook Inc. and is supported by several phone companies, said the people, who asked not to be named as the plans aren’t yet public.
The industry is pursuing the efforts with greater urgency partly because they’re alarmed by the prospect of restrictions on Huawei in more markets such as Germany, one of the people said. The U.K.’s decision to limit Huawei’s share of broadband infrastructure already led BT Group Plc to predict a 500 million-pound ($650 million) hit to its finances.
The carriers were planning to announce the O-RAN/TIP initiative at the wireless industry’s biggest annual showcase in Barcelona next week, before it was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, the people said. An announcement could instead come as early as this week.
O-RAN’s goal from the start has been to “invite in more players with new ideas to help make the network stronger and more secure,” said Deutsche Telekom spokeswoman Pia Habel. She declined further comment.
A spokeswoman for TIP declined to comment. A representative for O-RAN could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ensuring that antennas, switches and other gear from competing suppliers can communicate seamlessly may also make it harder for any vendor -- Ericsson and Nokia included -- to clinch contracts just because the customer already uses its equipment. That could strengthen the negotiating position of carriers in contracts for 5G networks that are set to cost the industry hundreds of billions of dollars.
AT&T has said it wants to replace the proprietary software that Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei use to run their wireless network gear with an open software.
Vodafone has begun issuing small contracts for OpenRAN, an initiative backed by TIP to standardize radio access network hardware and software. CEO Nick Read said in October that Vodafone was “ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem.”
O-RAN began in 2018 as a lobbying and research effort to make the radio access network -- the largest part of a wireless system -- more transparent and inter-operable. TIP is a broader project involving hundreds of companies working across all elements of networks.
O-RAN and TIP may already be changing the economics of the industry and giving newer players more room. It’s now possible to design a “virtual” wireless network, which uses standardized, open-source software in conjunction with hardware from different vendors.
Rakuten Inc. is using such technology to roll out a virtual network in Japan. U.S. satellite broadcaster Dish Network Corp., a member of the O-RAN alliance, aims to build a 5G network along similar lines.
Ericsson and Nokia, reluctant to pick a fight with their biggest customers, have publicly welcomed O-RAN and TIP. Ericsson has joined O-RAN, while Nokia supports TIP and has been helping Rakuten build the Japanese network.
Nokia Chief Executive Officer Rajeev Suri said in April last year it’s “better to be involved than not,” although he didn’t expect the model to be replicated in other parts of the world.
--With assistance from Thomas Seal, Angelina Rascouet, Niclas Rolander and Scott Moritz.
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