5G and Beyond

US sets up new open RAN group amid telecom slugfest with China

Telecom probably didn't need another open RAN association, but it seems to have gained one anyway. In a low-key announcement, the Open RAN Policy Coalition introduced itself to the world today as the latest group advocating a more open approach to the construction of radio access networks. "Open" meaning no Huawei, of course.

For as the name implies, what really distinguishes this organization from its predecessors is the government's interest in open RAN as an antidote to China's 5G poison. That's not glaringly obvious until you read the part of the press release just above the membership details, where it says: "The US Federal Government has an important role to play in facilitating and fostering an open, diverse and secure supply chain." And so on.

The identity of the group's executive director is also a clue. Diane Rinaldo, of course, was until recently the deputy assistant secretary for communications and information at the US Department of Commerce (DoC). Politicians have been skulking around the open RAN movement ever since they figured out that: (a) a few open RAN companies are American; and (b) it's a potential threat to evildoing Huawei. Now politics looks set to become more firmly embedded in the action.

So will the Open RAN Policy Coalition co-ordinate US efforts and even play a part in assigning funding to US open RAN players? The launch of the new group, interestingly, comes several weeks after a bipartisan group of US senators proposed investing more than $1 billion in open RAN technologies. Under their plans, the funds would come from spectrum auction proceeds and be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That's the bit of the DoC where Rinaldo plied her trade.

At the time of publication, the group had not responded to questions about its precise role and what makes it different from the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the O-RAN Alliance, the two main groups already in this space. It's important to note, however, that the published membership list features the names of several non-US companies, including Fujitsu, NEC, NTT, Rakuten (all Japanese), Samsung (South Korean), Telefónica (Spanish) and Vodafone (based in the UK).

Just about all the other members are American, however, and there are plenty of them. They include (deep breath) Airspan, Altiostar, AT&T, AWS, Cisco, CommScope, Dell, Dish, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Juniper Networks, Mavenir, Microsoft, NewEdge Signal Solutions, Oracle, Parallel Wireless, Qualcomm, US Ignite, Verizon, VMware, World Wide Technology and XCOM-Labs.

Besides missing any Chinese names, that list also omits any mention of either Ericsson or Nokia, the two European vendors largely responsible for the US 5G projects that are currently underway. Open RAN may seem just as threatening to these companies as it does to Huawei, reducing equipment costs and bringing competition into the radio market (if it works out).

Ericsson joined the O-RAN Alliance last year, but it has never seemed like the most enthusiastic member of the group, slamming the performance capabilities of the open RAN's general-purpose processors just a few weeks ago. As for Nokia, it has signed up to both the O-RAN Alliance and TIP, and even participated in Rakuten's closely watched open RAN deployment in Japan. But its level of interest in the technology remains doubtful.

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What members hope to gain from the Open RAN Policy Coalition, other than perhaps a slice of federal funds and some hobnobbing opportunities with US authorities, is unclear. In the group's statement, Rinaldo says: "By promoting policies that standardize and develop open interfaces, we can ensure interoperability and security across different players and potentially lower the barrier to entry for new innovators." But that is exactly what the O-RAN Alliance was set up to do.

It sounds like a headache for that group and TIP, which pulled together earlier this year, signing a long-anticipated "liaison agreement," after months of industry concern about the duplication of effort. Now another group has sprung up, bringing new uncertainty with it.

But if there is any worry for TIP, Attilio Zani, that group's executive director, is not showing it. In remarks emailed directly to Light Reading, Zani said he welcomed "a supportive policy environment that allows new technology to flourish." The launch of the coalition, he argued, would "create greater opportunities for new entrants and a more diverse supply chain."

Parallel Wireless says those remarks are warranted. A spokesperson for the US software company insists the new group, which it has joined, does not duplicate the efforts of TIP or the O-RAN Alliance because its focus is on educating governments, and not just the US government, either. The complexity of radio access networks, compared with other infrastructure, makes this a necessity, says the company.

"We see this coalition as an important addition to the standards work that O-RAN Alliance is doing and also global deployments driven by TIP," said Steve Papa, the CEO of Parallel Wireless, in comments emailed to Light Reading.

Praise has also come from other US members with an eye on federal funds and the opportunity to replace Huawei in rural US networks. "Open RAN networks are a significant departure from the traditional industry model and legislators need to know the advantages and how government actions can help accelerating the development and deployment of open and interoperable solutions," said Thierry Maupilé, Altiostar's executive vice president, in a statement.

The big question is whether Ericsson's criticisms are justified. Service providers locked into relationships with a small number of equipment giants love the sound of open RAN. But hardly any operators with existing networks to maintain are prepared to use it at scale. And Rakuten is the only greenfield operator to have done so. Its service launched a few weeks ago, relying on about 14,000 radios powered by Altiostar's software. Dish, the US operator set to build a fourth mobile network, seems to be using Rakuten as a guide.

But analysts have remained skeptical that Rakuten can challenge Japan's old guard with a cloud-only mobile network. In a research note published in March, shortly before Rakuten's launch, Atul Goyal, an analyst with Jefferies, flagged "numerous connectivity issues" when Rakuten introduced its beta service in late 2019. "A poor-quality, low-price network is likely to fail in Japan," he wrote. Its failure would be a huge setback for open RAN.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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