While the world was on edge back in January, watching to see if the United States will have a peaceful transition of power or fall into chaos, an important announcement from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was released but swept under the “attention rug” -- 5G Challenge Notice of Inquiry.
This is the first example I’ve seen where the US government is explicitly engaging with the open source technology community on something as strategically important as 5G.
5G doesn’t just have a geopolitical problem. It has a “black box” problem and an antitrust problem. It is currently dominated by three major telecom equipment vendors -- Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia. Even though Huawei has been effectively pushed out of any market that’s concerned with China’s influence, having only two options left to choose from is not a good situation.
A few weeks ago, the four largest European telcos -- Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, Vodafone, and Orange -- signed a Memorandum of Understanding supporting OpenRAN, an open source 5G network project. Looks like USG is taking its own steps to figure out how to support an “open” 5G stack.
Let’s dig into the details, possible players, and future implications.
First, a quick tutorial of what NTIA is.
It is a bureau within the Department of Commerce (think of it as a division inside a big corporation), whose policy portfolio includes all things related to telecom and Internet access, which is how we all access information these days, thus the “I” in NTIA. When I was a staffer at Commerce 10 years ago, I interacted quite a bit with folks from NTIA. We were working on expanding broadband Internet access in rural regions of America. (Netflix’s streaming quality on a farm in the Midwest back then was not great). NTIA’s policymaking purview has an obvious impact on the tech sector, thus it’s one of the more “tech literate” government agencies, but it has a low public profile.
Just like any large bureaucracy, there’s a lot of overlapping jurisdictions within the USG. This particular 5G Challenge Notice of Inquiry issued by NTIA is actually “under sponsorship of and in collaboration with the Department of Defense 5G Initiative”, in order to “accelerate the development of the open 5G stack ecosystem in support of Department of Defense missions.” The DoD is the agency driving the broader effort, and NTIA is tasked with implementing a part of it.
A “Notice of Inquiry” is a common vehicle for the government to solicit suggestions from the public when it wants to do something, but doesn’t really know how. The “something” appears to be a competition of sorts among players in the private sector and academia to develop an open source 5G stack faster, by providing the backing and endorsement of the USG. The technical motivation behind this Notice is worth block-quoting:
“Many innovations are being explored in the greater 5G economy. One movement that appears to be gaining traction across the ecosystem is the use of open-source implementations for various components of a 5G system. Among those components is the 5G protocol stack.”
The three questions that the NTIA sought input for are also worth noting:
“(1) Challenge structure and goals; (2) incentives and scope; and (3) timeframe and infrastructure support.”
In a nutshell: we (the government) don’t really know how to do this, but we really need to do this quickly, so tell us what you (the industry) need to make this happen!
Among the organizations that responded to this Notice, one caught my attention -- GitHub. Here’s the full-text of GitHub’s submission. Let’s break it down.
Most of GitHub’s official response reads like an “open source 101” tutorial for DC policymakers. That’s well warranted. Most policymakers don’t understand what open source development entails -- best practices, level of transparency, and expectations. To NTIA’s credit, it didn’t pretend to know what open source was either in the Notice and just used the word “open” for most of it.
GitHub’s response explained some important, fundamental concepts of open source:
- Build in public in a public repository
- Adopt modern software development practices, like continuous integration (CI) and ongoing security scanning
- Contribute “upstream” to benefit the whole ecosystem and avoid breaking dependencies
- Implement an open governance structure with multiple stakeholders
As GitHub’s accompanying blog post regarding its submission noted: “policymakers have sometimes misdefined or confused the term open source with other uses of ‘open’ meaning simply interoperable or available to all.” Given my own interaction with policymakers when discussing open source, this assessment sounds about right. Even companies who came from the “proprietary” way of building software still don’t have a firm understanding of what “open source” really means.
This submission isn’t all educational and altruistic; there’s a self-interested element to it too! GitHub wants to be considered as the platform to host this 5G Challenge. It already hosts the repos of two 5G related projects: the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP, part of the Linux Foundation, with DARPA participation) and the OpenAirInterface (with NSF participation). GitHub also touted its in-house tools, like DependaBot and various security vulnerabilities tracking, to further support its case as the right place to host this 5G Challenge.
Of course, having Microsoft as its parent doesn’t hurt either. As I wrote last year when discussing the DoD’s massive cloud contract, JEDI, Microsoft has made deep inroads within the USG to sell its Azure cloud offering to support the military. Having GitHub, where most developers already “live”, as the home of this 5G Challenge seems like the obvious choice.
I personally don’t have a stake in whether GitHub (or GitLab or any other collaboration platform) gets chosen. However, I am emotionally invested in advocating for the USG to better recognize the advantages of the open source development model -- speed, robustness, security, and (most importantly) trustworthiness -- as it attempts to re-energize technical innovation in the country. Open source best practices play to America’s own strengths as an open, inclusive society. (See my past writings on this topic here and here.)
Embracing, convening, and supporting open source is the right way to lead, not picking “ “national champions”, which is what China does. This NTIA Notice of Inquiry is a critical step in the right direction. Given that the DoD is already a big customer of open source software (every F-16 fighter jet runs three Kuberentes clusters), incorporating open source to develop 5G should not be a hard sell.
However, the NTIA is still a low-profile bureau inside the typically low-profile Department of Commerce. Given how strategically important 5G is, as this Challenge takes shape, I hope some capital from the White House (perhaps an East Room event?) would be spent on highlighting it.
One tricky, lingering question remains: how inclusive will this USG-led effort be given the current geopolitical climate?
GitHub’s blog post contains a poignant sentence: “With open source, collaboration can provide solutions based on the merits of commits, not politics or proprietary interests.” Indeed, both ONAP and OpenAirInterface have members from around the world, including Chinese organizations. ONAP’s Technical Steering Committee has research engineers from China Mobile, China Telecom, and Huawei (as well as technologists from large American, European, Canadian, and Indian telcos). OpenAirInterface’s membership roster includes the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, as well as academic organizations from around the world.
For these industry and academia-driven organizations, including Chinese telcos and universities makes sense from a pure technology development perspective. For the last few years, China is the only country investing at scale to build 5G infrastructure, so its hands-on experiences and know-hows are all worth referencing. The DoD’s early experimentation with 5G wasn’t announced until last October. On the public adoption side, Verizon just received its first shipment of 5G base stations (made in America, but made by Ericsson) last July -- even made a warm and patriotic video for it:
I highly doubt any Chinese organization will be allowed to participate in a future open 5G Challenge; that’ll be a PR nightmare, even though every line of code, every contribution will be committed and checked transparently in the open anyway.
The question that hits closer to home is: will American technologists of Chinese descent be allowed to contribute their expertise, without extra scrutiny and skepticism?
This question used to be unthinkable, when America was stronger, more self-assured, and more confident. A lot of that has been put to doubt, from within and without. America’s confidence has been shaken by China’s rise and its poor handling of COVID-19, race relations, and many other social issues beyond the realm of tech.
Embracing open source and implementing true inclusiveness, especially for a big ticket item like 5G, would no doubt help America regain some of that confidence and soft power. But the dynamic is a Catch-22: to be inclusive, you need to be self-assured and confident enough to begin with. (That’s partly why China, for all its advancement and wealth, is not that inclusive.)
How this 5G Challenge unfolds will show whether America is really on the path to regaining its confidence and strength.
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早在一月的时候，全世界都在屏住呼吸看着美国是否会和平交接政府领导班子，还是陷入混乱，所以那时美国国家电信和信息管理局（National Telecommunications and Information Administration，NTIA）发布的一项重要公告，完全没有被关注。公告是：“5G挑战调查通知”。
5G不仅仅有地缘政治的挑战，还有一个 "黑盒" 的问题和反垄断问题。它目前由三大电信设备商所主导 -- 华为、爱立信和诺基亚。尽管华为已经被任何担心中国影响力的市场挤出局，但只有两个可选的厂商，并不是件好事。
几周前，欧洲四大电信公司 -- 德国电信、西班牙电信、沃达丰和Orange -- 签署了一份支持开源5G网络项目OpenRAN的公开承诺。看来，美国政府也正在用自己的方式，想办法支持一个 "开放" 的5G。
它是商务部内的一个分局 (可以把它想象成一家大公司内的一个部门)，其政策管辖范围包括与电信和互联网普及有关的事项，也就是我们所有人现在获取信息的方式，因此NTIA中的 "I，information"。10年前我在商务部工作的时候和NTIA的人有过不少交流。我们当时正在努力扩大美国农村地区的宽带互联网覆盖程度。(当时要想在中西部的农场上看Netflix效果并不好)。NTIA的管辖范围对科技行业影响是很明显的，因此它也是一个比较 "懂科技" 的政府机构，但它的公众知名度并不高。
就像任何一个大型官僚机构一样，美国政府内的许多部门都有重叠的管辖范围。NTIA发布的这个“5G挑战调查通知” 其实是 "在国防部5G倡议的赞助和合作下"，以 "加速开发开放的5G堆栈生态系统，以支持国防部的任务" 为缘由。也就是说，国防部是推动整个事情的机构，而NTIA的任务是实施其中的一部分。
"调查通知" （Notice of Inquiry）是政府的一个常用工具，想做某些事，但又不知道怎么做时，向公众征集建议。这件“事” 似乎是一项开发5G的竞赛，由私有企业和学术界参与，政府发力支持和协助，从以促进开源的5G协议栈能更快地开发出来。这份 “通知” 关于技术的内容值得关注：
"(1) 竞赛的结构和目标; (2) 激励参与者的措施和范围; (3) 时间线和需要的基础设施支持。"
在响应这个通知的组织中，有一家引起了我的注意 -- GitHub。这里链接一下GitHub提交的回应全文。我们来分析一下。
GitHub的回应中，很大一部分内容都像是给华盛顿政策监管者上一堂 "开源101" 的课。这么做是有道理的。大多数政策制定者并不了解开源科技开发到底是怎么一回事 -- 最佳实践、透明程度和期望值。值得小小称赞的是，NTIA在发出通知中也没有假装懂什么是开源，在文件的大部分地方只用了 "开放" 这个词。
- 采用现代软件开发实践，如continuous integration (CI) 和持续安全扫描
- 向 "上游"贡献，让整个生态受益，避免切断代码依赖性
据我个人在于政府政策官员讨论开源时的感觉，这一评估并不过分。即使是那些习惯于 “闭源” 软件模式的公司，很多也仍然没有真正理解 "开源" 的含义。
这份回应文档当然并不都无私的开源教育内容，其中也有自利的因素! GitHub希望被考虑成为本次5G竞赛的平台。它已经托管了两个5G相关项目：开放网络自动化平台（Open Network Automation Platform，ONAP，Linux基金会的一部分，有DARPA参与）和OpenAirInterface（有NSF参与）。GitHub也趁机宣传了一下其内部工具，如DependaBot和各种安全漏洞跟踪系统，以进一步为作为5G竞赛平台的“主办方” 给自己加分。
我个人对GitHub (还是GitLab，或任何其他开发者合作平台) 当不当选并不在乎，没有利害关系。但我很在乎也很投入地想倡导美国政府更好地认识到开源开发模式的优势 -- 速度、稳健、安全和（最重要的）可信度 -- 从中找到重振技术创新的火花。开源的各种最佳实践自然而然的能发挥出美国作为一个开放、包容社会的自身优势。（这个话题上，我过去已经写过了几篇文章您可以看。）
拥抱、召集和支持开源是正确的领导方式，而挑选 "国家队"（中国的做法）并不是。NTIA的这份 “调查通知” 是朝着正确的方向迈出的关键一步。鉴于国防部已经是开源软件的大客户（每架F-16战斗机都运行着三个Kuberentes集群），结合开源来发展5G不应该有太多阻碍。
然而，NTIA毕竟是个知名度不高的分局，又存在在一般低调的商务部内。鉴于5G的战略重要性，随着此次竞赛开始成型，我希望白宫能舍得一些资本，高调支持它 (也许在白宫East Room搞个活动?)。