FCC Commissioners, Trump administration officials, and industry representatives today stressed the benefits of deploying 5G open radio access networks (O-RAN), including improved security and innovation.
In opening a day-long 5G open RAN forum today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that the adoption of open RAN technology would help diversify the market for 5G network components. “Much of the equipment at the heart of 5G networks currently comes from just a few global suppliers. Three of the most prominent are Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia, and South Korea’s Samsung, but the largest of them is the Chinese company Huawei,” he said.
“Carriers building out 5G networks rightfully worry that Huawei equipment could expose them to security risks. Huawei’s market power, aided by generous subsidies from the Chinese Communist Party, often might seem to make that company the cheapest and thus best option for network equipment,” he said. But “you get what you pay for,” he said, and “the long-term costs of using insecure equipment are likely to outweigh any short-term savings.”
“We need to invest in this technology, and we must do some deep and proactive thinking on the best policies to effectuate our goals of promoting secure telecommunications networks,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.
He recommended that the FCC “explore that each ‘rip and replace’ carrier rebuilding its network be required to consider solutions offered by an O-RAN provider. That would achieve many of our goals, including encouraging global competition with Huawei, capitalizing on U.S. software advantages, accelerating the development of O-RAN as a product-model and a business-case, and allowing for alternative vendors to enter the market and offer specific network solutions. While no carrier should be forced to adopt, it would encourage carriers to consider a technology that might have been overlooked otherwise.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that “momentum is building” toward open RAN networks, but she added that “we do have more work to do because not everyone is convinced.” For example, she noted skepticism voiced by Attorney General Bill Barr.
The Commissioner called for more R&D investment by the government and private sector, the launch of an open RAN test bed, and the need to “build scale economies for open RAN technologies” through efforts such as providing incentives for carriers that replace equipment with open RAN technology and incentives to build next-generation chips for open RANs.
Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said that open RAN networks can help enable “secure interoperability” and reduce reliance on foreign manufacturers. But he said that three conditions are necessary to ensure that open RAN technology is successful: There must be no technical mandates imposed by governments, there is a need to “maintain vendor neutrality,” and the transition to open RANs “must remain voluntary.”
Commissioner Brendan Carr said that the “unbundling” of network components would provide three benefits: improving service, improving security, and creating more U.S. jobs. Policymakers need to accelerate the transition to open RAN networks so when small carriers rip and replace their insecure gear, they will have a choice of such equipment, he said.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo agreed that operators of 5G networks in the U.S. and allied nations should avoid using Huawei equipment, and he noted that many U.S. allies had joined a coalition to promote “clean” networks. “It is about 30 countries that are clean countries, and many are the world's biggest telecommunications companies and nations. They are using technology that makes them clean telcos. We have also rolled out the clean network, a coalition of like-minded countries and companies,” he said.
“We want our friends to choose trusted 5G vendors for their network needs, not vendors tied to the Chinese Communist Party. The world does not want China’s communists hacking into self-driving cars or medical tools,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Robert Blair, director policy and strategic planning at the Department of Commerce, described how the various components of Commerce were working to free spectrum for 5G, ensure that U.S. networks were secure, and promote the adoption of open RAN technology. “We know industry is eager to build and deploy open and interoperable 5G networks. We at the department understand the move toward open architectures can and should be industry-led, but the government has to help,” he said.
“One way we are helping is working with like-minded governments to identify ways to collaborate. A second way we are working is to build off that success by exploring the development of principles for open and interoperable networks,” he said. “We have a chance right now to build a telecommunications system that will protect the principles of freedom and openness that this country was founded upon, and I'm looking forward to continuing our partnership with the FCC and with the rest of the administration, because we really are at a seminal point in the development of these processes.”
Also addressing the conference, Jane Harman, the Wilson Center’s director, president, and chief executive officer, said U.S. policy-makers shouldn’t obsess over “winning the race” to 5G but should capitalize on the ability of U.S. companies and research institutions to innovate. “Europe beat us in inventing the jet engine, but America was able to eventually lead the industry with efficient production and distribution, which is why the word ‘race’ in the context of 5G is not very helpful,” she said.
“The question is not who is winning, but how we can put ourselves in the best possible position to take advantage of current and future economic benefits while addressing security concerns,” said Ms. Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman. “Open RAN is not a geopolitical silver bullet. It is one of a broader set of steps necessary to shape a robust and secure telecommunications ecosystem.”
During panel discussions at today’s event, industry representatives emphasized the benefits of open RAN networks, including facilitating security and innovation, but they also said that action was needed on a number of fronts to ensure they are deployed in large numbers. They also cited likely obstacles, including resistance by incumbents. Speakers referred to an estimate that by 2025, 10% of networks will use open RAN technology, saying that more progress can be made.
“The ecosystem has to get larger,” said John Roese, president and chief technology officer–products and operations at Dell Technologies. “The entire IT industry depends on it.”
“We are not where we need to be,” he said, adding that the U.S. “vacated the wireless industry” in the past decade, except for semiconductors companies and carriers. “There’s quite a long journey in front of us,” he said.
“I think O-RAN has started to open up some of that avenue,” Mr. Roese said, but he said open interfaces, more startups, and other things are also necessary. He also said that it’s difficult for rural operators to assemble turn-key O-RAN systems.
The government should offer investment credits “to jump-start the ecosystem as a whole,” said Morgan Kurk, CTO of CommScope, Inc. Such action is needed because “the playing field is not level” because some countries support “specific vendors,” he added.
Soma Velayutham, general manager–AI for telecom at Nvidia Corp., also endorsed the use of tax credits to encourage open RAN networks.
Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm, Inc., said the U.S. government should seek alliances with other nations in support of milestones to drive major carriers to deploy platforms that will enable open RAN technology. “Governments can play a very important role,” he added.
Stephen Bye, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Dish Network Corp., noted that his company is building an open RAN 5G network.
Laurie Bigler, assistant vice president at AT&T, Inc., and a member of its technical staff in charge of access analytics and systems, said AT&T is bullish on open interfaces to take advantage of AI and machine learning and help with 5G deployment. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]; Tom Leithauser, [email protected]
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