The Pentagon is urging US telecoms equipment makers to join forces on 5G technology in a drive to offer a homegrown alternative to China’s Huawei.
Lisa Porter, who oversees research and development at the defence department, has asked US companies to develop open-source 5G software — in effect opening up their technology to potential rivals — warning they risk becoming obsolete if they do not.
Making 5G tech open-source could threaten American companies such as Cisco or Oracle, the biggest American suppliers of telecoms network equipment.
This technology — known as open radio access networks — would allow telecoms carriers to buy off-the-shelf hardware from a range of vendors, rather than bespoke systems.
US officials hope it will provide an alternative to Huawei. The Chinese equipment maker dominates the market, but many in Washington believe it poses a threat to US national security.
Ms Porter told the Financial Times: “I think those that drag will ultimately have to come along. It is just like any other historical trend — the classic one being Kodak, which invented digital cameras but then didn’t leverage them.”
“The beauty of our country is that we allow that marketplace to decide the winners. The market will decide. If someone is dragging their feet, that’s up to them to decide, but then the market will decide from there who wins.”
US officials are hunting for ways to undercut the powerful position built by Huawei, which sells just under a third of the world’s 5G equipment, but whose products they warn could be used by Beijing for spying.
Much of that effort has focused on how to cut Huawei out of the US and other western markets. The FT revealed last week that the state department recently asked US telecoms companies to sign up to a set of supply-chain principles that would in effect shut out the Chinese company — although it was rebuffed by executives who were worried about getting sued.
At the same time, the Trump administration is also looking for ways to foster competition to the Chinese equipment maker.
Senior members of the administration have discussed funnelling money to Nokia and Ericsson, Huawei’s European rivals, since no American company makes radio access towers. They have also asked Oracle and Cisco whether they would consider entering the radio transmission market, but have been rebuffed by both.
Ms Porter said: “Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung are all in the mix and we recognise them as potential contributors clearly to that capability.”
But she was more enthusiastic about the possibility that American companies could help develop open-source technology that would allow carriers to buy equipment from a range of suppliers. One of Huawei’s main selling points is that the company can build an entire 5G network, including everything from radio towers to individual routers.
While US officials are considering granting tax breaks to help develop this open-source technology, some industry executives privately express concerns that they are giving an advantage to a particular product which will not be ready in time for 5G.
Ms Porter said: “We think that the more you can open things up to follow the pathway of other historical technology advances like data servers, the more you’re going to play to the United States strengths and the strengths of our Western partners and allies.”