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by Scott Kelly
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on how critical the infrastructure that connects us in the information age is, as well as how much leverage China has amassed over the global economy. This has fueled an acceleration of creating new technologies that will enable highspeed nationwide 5G coverage, while finding ways to make networks more secure and less reliant on single source, large foreign vendors.
The current model of how telecom networks are deployed, with large vendors deploying proprietary equipment at massive scale, is too costly to keep pace with the growing demand for increased network connectivity. This has led to a move towards Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN). The move to ORAN will radically change the value of large telecom vendors in establishing modern networks, including Chinese telecom company Huawei. Huawei is a key player in Beijing’s espionage efforts and facilitator of China’s drive to expand its global influence. This gives the U.S. and her allies the opportunity to weaponize ORAN to contain China’s expansion through the development, provisioning, and deployment of ORAN technology globally.
What is ORAN
ORAN is a new approach to building and operating wireless networks that aims to increase competition and innovation in the telecommunications industry. The traditional approach to building wireless networks involves using proprietary equipment from a single vendor, but ORAN aims to use open, interoperable components from multiple vendors, allowing for more flexibility and innovation in the design and operation of networks. This will lead to reduced costs, increased efficiency, and faster deployment of new technologies. Additionally, ORAN will allow new players to break into the telecommunications market and increase the opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that don’t have the resources to support the cost of building out their own proprietary end to end network.
The U.S. government is funding ORAN research and development because of concerns about the potential national security risks associated with relying on a small number of foreign vendors for critical communications infrastructure. By promoting the development of ORAN technology, the government hopes to increase competition and reduce the dependence on foreign vendors in order to increase security and resiliency in our communication infrastructure. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced its support for ORAN technology and has proposed more than $1 billion in funding to support the development and deployment of ORAN networks. Organizations such as the ORAN Alliance have brought together various telecom industry vendors to develop standards for ORAN compliant hardware and software. These enable numerous small companies to independently develop tools for different parts of the network and to support unique use cases, many of which legacy vendors won’t support due to the high cost of developing new proprietary equipment that may not profitably scale across a single large network.
As China is seeks to replace the U.S. as the dominant player in world affairs it has used diplomacy, information, and economic tools to expand its sphere of influence and coerce nations into compliance with its goals and silence over its atrocities at home and bad faith acts abroad. The vanguard of this effort has been Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
Huawei has made significant investments in developing countries, contributing to the creation of their digital infrastructure, and providing jobs for local people. They offer an all-in-one end to end telecommunications solution with proprietary hardware, software, access to cheap financing and the technical expertise needed to deploy and maintain a full network. This has helped build relationships with governments and local communities, which in turn helps China to strengthen its influence in and gain access to critical natural resources.
Industry experts have examined how the contracts for these cheap, modern networks are written, and determined that some if not all of them are impossible to be profitable for the company, even accounting for rock bottom labor and manufacturing costs. They have even taken unprofitable contracts in developed countries such as the United States, setting up telecom equipment in hard-to-reach rural areas traditional mobile network operators won’t cover due to lack of a sufficient subscriber base to make deployments profitable. By improbable coincidence, these Huawei supported networks were set up near key national security assets such as our ground based nuclear missile facilities. This has led observers to conclude that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing is directly funding Huawei’s global ventures as a way to expand their sphere of influence, gain leverage to exploit developing countries, and conduct espionage.
The Enemy is Inside the Gate
There are several security risks associated with the use of Huawei technology in building telecommunications networks. Huawei’s close ties to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) make it a tool for Chinese espionage. Critics have raised concerns over the presence of “backdoor” access points in Huawei’s equipment that can be used by the Chinese government for surveillance or other malicious purposes. The widespread use of Huawei’s technology in critical infrastructure, such as power grids and communication networks, has raised concerns that a cyber-attack targeting Huawei’s equipment could have far-reaching impacts, disrupting essential services and potentially causing widespread harm. The vulnerability is enhanced by the possibility that the CCP would initiate such an attack themselves in retaliation for perceived slights, such as speaking out against the Uigur genocide they continue to perpetrate in Xinjiang.*
* Australia experienced a version of this when it proposed an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and China responded by initiating a trade war, attempting to use economic blackmail to silence their critics abroad by targeting Australian exports with tariffs
The extent of the threat posed by wide scale use of Huawei’s telecommunications equipment was made clear in 2017 at the African Union headquarters building in Ethiopia. Built in 2012 with a 200 million dollar “gift” from China, the building was outfitted with a full ensemble of cameras, teleconferencing equipment, and dedicated servers housed in an onsite data center. Five years after opening it was discovered that every night between midnight and 2 am, those servers that carried the most sensitive political, military, and economic conversations of Africa’s leaders were uploading all of their information off site to Shanghai. The breadth and boldness of the spy effort was as shocking as it was impressive. China was able to gain more insight into the goals, plans, and capabilities of each African nation than those same nations were sharing amongst each other. China knew not only what diplomats shared with each other, but what those diplomats discussed with their home governments and chose not to share with other African nations. With that one telecommunications deployment, China gained leverage over an entire continent and at a bargain price. By way of comparison, the price tag of $200 million was less than what it cost the U.S. to support a single day of combat operations in Afghanistan.
China is able to continue to peddle its telecom products around the world despite the known security risks for two simple reasons. Telecom networks are expensive, and necessary. A traditional telecom network requires a single, large-scale vendor to create, install, operate, and maintain using its own suite of proprietary technologies that create barriers to entry for new players. They are also necessary for modern banking, transportation, healthcare, agriculture, and a host of other industries. In a globalized world, you either get yourself plugged in, or keep yourself locked out. For a government leading an otherwise underdeveloped, impoverished nation with no path towards raising the capital needed for their own network, China’s robust tech and cheap financing, no matter how predatory, can look very attractive. If you’re not trying to get ahead but simply trying to catch up and keep up in the game of globalization, letting China hold a digital gun to your head as they bring you along can seem better than not getting there at all.
ORAN disrupts this environment by reducing the barriers to entry for new players in the telecom markets and opening new pathways for nations to build, own, and operate their own networks. Instead of contracting with one major provider to build out an entire network, governments can source components from a suite of vendors all over the world. This allows for incremental deployments, reduces the technical expertise needed to create a network, and avoids the issue of being beholden to one large company for decades to maintain the network. It also changes building out a network from a necessary step on the path to future economic growth, to a key driver of growth itself. ORAN enables numerous small and medium sized local companies, with ownership based in the same countries and communities they operate in, to drive a network’s creation, deployment, operation, and maintenance.
ORAN doesn’t just give developing countries a viable alternative to the legacy model that drives them into bed with China, it gives them a better one.
Although the task of ensuring the integrity and security of components from multiple vendors does present new security challenges, it drastically reduces the possibility of the CCP, through a proxy like Huawei, gaining control over an entire network, and by extension, leverage over an entire country’s economic, diplomatic, and security future. The adoption of ORAN also kicks off a cycle of creative destruction that will play to the advantage of those who are best able to innovate and adapt.
This poses a tremendous challenge to the closed, authoritarian political regime in Beijing and creates a massive opportunity for open, democratic societies to leap ahead in a variety of technological fields. Innovation requires the free flow of ideas, respect for intellectual property, and the ability to collaborate at scale. The CCP can’t allow its citizens to do this without simultaneously opening the door for domestic political revolution. In America, we can’t hold it back even if we tried.
The adoption of ORAN is good business at home, and great policy abroad. Its implications go beyond the technical achievements it enables and reaches into how people interact at every level of society, including the nation state. It poses a direct challenge to the current model China uses to expand its sphere of influence, and creates new problems for the political regime in Beijing as they balance the need for technological innovation with maintaining political control. While they deliberate, the free world will be innovating in as yet unforeseen ways, as more nations will be able to participate in the information age freely and securely.