open RAN

Biden administration offers practical, collaborative outlook on open RAN

The White House offered a relatively comprehensive view of the open RAN trend, noting it supports US efforts to foster the technology while at the same time acknowledging that open RAN isn't the only game in town and that policymakers shouldn't get in the way of industry innovation.

"The Executive Branch fully supports industry's development of open RAN while recognizing the importance of maintaining a full suite of solutions offered by incumbent vendors," the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) summed up in a filing to the FCC on the topic of open RAN.

Importantly, the NTIA wrote that its comments on the topic represent "an integrated, cohesive response from numerous agencies within the Executive Branch." That's noteworthy considering the NTIA is the agency "responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues."

Under the Trump administration, conflicts over spectrum and other issues among the NTIA, FCC and other government agencies routinely spilled into public view. Thus, it appears the Biden administration is attempting to take a more deliberate, unified approach to such issues. However, both the NTIA and the FCC still do not have permanent leadership.

Increased competition

In its 26-page assessment of open RAN, the NTIA wrote that the technology promises a number of benefits, including potentially opening up the telecom industry to new players by creating Lego-style links between networking elements that can be swapped in and out.

"Reducing vendor lock-in and barriers to market entry is expected to increase competition and choice in the telecommunications infrastructure market, which then could lead to increased innovation, reduced prices, and enhanced connectivity – including in rural areas," NTIA wrote. "Increasing choice for operators is important, especially in light of supply chain security concerns arising with high-risk vendors."

And as a result, the NTIA urged the FCC to support the open RAN industry with opportunities for testing and collaboration. The FCC, for its part, recently announced it would expand the number of wireless network "innovation zones" around the country from two to four.

But the NTIA also acknowledged that questions continue to surround open RAN, and that government mandates may not be the best way to encourage the development of the technology.

A question of security

"It may be premature to attempt a direct security comparison between open RAN and traditional RAN architectures at this time when open RAN technologies are still in development and testing phases. Nevertheless, open architectures, such as open RAN, offer operators increased visibility and understanding of the behavior of the system compared to closed architectures."

Continued the NTIA: "In multi-vendor RAN deployments, the level of accountability and trust can depend on a variety of factors, such as what role each vendor plays, who integrated the network (e.g., the operator, one of the equipment vendors, or a third-party integrator), and the overall comfort level of the operator and integrator with the vendors used in the network. Currently, there is no substantial evidence that a multi-vendor deployment would increase or reduce accountability and trust versus a single-vendor deployment."

In its filing to the FCC, the NTIA also discussed the role that the government could play in the development of open RAN technology specifically and the telecom and 5G industries more broadly. The agency said it is already working with various governments around the world, and to participate where it makes sense.

But the NTIA cautioned against governments getting directly involved in the development of technologies like open RAN.

Global collaboration

"Intervention or manipulation by governments could lead to geographic fragmentation of the technology through government mandated, country-specific standards and requirements," NTIA wrote. "As the technology develops and final specifications are standardized, it is critical to the global potential of open, interoperable networks that all countries recognize and accept voluntary, industry-led consensus-based standards for technologies for the entire wireless ecosystem. Governments may be motivated to take a top-down approach to standards development or mandate national standards using indigenous technologies. The [Federal Communications] Commission can work with Department of Commerce, Department of State, and other Executive Branch agencies to emphasize the importance of all countries accepting industry-led standards development for wireless networks."

Perhaps more interestingly, the NTIA said it supports an international approach to open RAN development, rather than one that favors US companies.

"The emergence of vibrant open RAN ecosystems outside of the United States ... may be mutually beneficial," the agency wrote. "Under such circumstances, the emergence of strong, foreign-based ecosystems alongside US ecosystems could facilitate cross-border partnership opportunities and greater innovation overall – reinforcing the importance of our global, interconnected, interoperable communications infrastructure – which the United States should welcome."

Such language dovetails with President Biden's efforts to counter the Trump administration's "America first" international policies with a more collaborative approach.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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