Some of the biggest tech companies in the world are urging the US government to help set up open RAN testing and certification facilities. Doing so, they argue, would help nurture the technology alongside US-based equipment and services providers.
But some argue that suggestion is too little and too late.
The topic highlights the pitfalls policymakers face in leveraging open RAN in the pursuit of techno nationalism. "Open RAN has emerged as one promising path to drive 5G security and innovation in the United States," said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in February. She said the technology could help "revitalize the nation's 5G leadership and innovation."
Rosenworcel isn't alone.
"The US ecosystem has few RAN hardware and Virtual Network Function (VNF) software vendors especially for macro-cell solutions. These are important areas for the open RAN ecosystem which should be considered in efforts to expand the ecosystem," Intel wrote to the FCC.
The question, though, is exactly how US policymakers should encourage the development of open RAN technology, thus fostering domestic suppliers. The FCC recently held a proceeding on the question, soliciting suggestions about how the agency specifically and policymakers in general might encourage the development of open RAN technology and suppliers, particularly those based in the US.
An open RAN arbiter
In response, some companies urged the FCC to take a leading role in certifying open RAN equipment.
"An industry certification program for open RAN can be a significant milestone, where every component provider gets certified," Microsoft told the FCC. "It is extremely important to recognize that setting up this process should not delay or hinder the aggressive momentum seen with open RAN. As a model, the industry has developed a certification process for devices in the CBRS band known as OnGo certification. The FCC should encourage industry to come up with the equivalent for open RAN."
Ericsson cast the US military in that role.
"We suggested that the DoD [Department of Defense] set up a lab to which all vendors could bring their products for functional and interoperability testing," Ericsson told the FCC.
As Ericsson pointed out in its filing, the DoD is already moving toward that position. The agency, in coordination with the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), announced in January a new "5G Challenge" program it said is designed to "ensure cooperation, collaboration and interoperability among the participants" in the pursuit of "an open 5G ecosystem that can support DoD missions."
Intel, for its part, suggested Congress consider funding an Open Testing and Integration Center (OTIC) for open RAN. As outlined by the O-RAN Alliance – the group driving global open RAN specifications – OTICs help to "test and verify the conformity of RAN equipment to O-RAN interface specifications, based on O-RAN conformance test specifications."
"North America would benefit from an OTIC, which could facilitate and accelerate adoption of open RAN by certifying the most common tests required by operators," Intel argued. "The presence of an OTIC in North America would likely be particularly helpful for smaller companies. As the US Congress considers funding proposals related to open RAN, any support for a North American OTIC from the FCC, as appropriate, would be useful."
But other open RAN proponents argue that kind of testing and certification is already underway.
Labs on top of labs
"I think you're going to see a number of these labs," Mavenir's John Baker told Light Reading. The company – a vocal open RAN proponent – has already tested its open RAN products across several other vendors.
Thanks to ongoing certification efforts by the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), "there's a pathway for vendors to compete," Baker said.
Indeed, one of the operators Mavenir is working with in open RAN is Dish Network, which has promised to switch on an open RAN network in Las Vegas in the fall. Stephen Bye, Dish's EVP and chief commercial officer, told Light Reading last year that VMware will test and certify vendors' network functions as they are installed in Dish's network, including those from Mavenir.
However, it's worth noting that the O-RAN Alliance has already conducted two worldwide plugfests, which have included testing. The first, at the end of 2019, included activities in New York City hosted by AT&T. The second, held near the end of last year, included activities in both New York City and Salt Lake City and was hosted by AT&T and Verizon.
Both of the O-RAN Alliance's plugfest events in the US operated through the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, which is funded by the US government's National Science Foundation (NSF).
Thus, it seems that the FCC may be a step behind other efforts within the wireless industry and the US government, considering the O-RAN Alliance has already published its third set of software releases for testing, dubbed "Cherry."
Internationally, the situation appears similar. For example, the UK government has already financed the construction of its own testing and certification operation, the SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC). The effort is a joint activity between Digital Catapult and Ofcom, the UK's telecom regulatory agency that is the equivalent of the FCC in the US. The goal of SONIC is to "create a platform for existing and emerging suppliers to test interoperability and integration of open and software-centric networking solutions, starting with open RAN."
SONIC will be "live and operational" this month, the groups said.
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