Open RAN – that collection of obscure wireless networking specifications – on Wednesday was the topic of another Congressional hearing. US lawmakers and executives from all over the world debated during a virtual event whether the technology could impact issues ranging from national cybersecurity to the digital divide.
It's no surprise though that open RAN continues to generate so much interest across so many areas of the telecom industry. After all, President Biden has proposed up to $100 billion for broadband across the US. And that's in addition to the billions of dollars already allocated for projects focused on helping poor Americans pay for Internet connections and funding the replacement of Huawei equipment in US networks.
Meaning, lawmakers in Washington, DC, are handing out checks, and open RAN proponents are wondering if they might be able to get one. Or two.
$3B ought to do it
"To help smaller companies to scale and compete with the dominant, incumbent equipment manufacturers, the US government should provide other financial incentives, such as loan guarantees, tax incentives, and funded demonstration networks to propel our mobile carriers to pursue open RAN deployments," argued John Baker of Mavenir, a top open RAN vendor. Baker pointed out that the Germans have already allocated $412 million to open RAN, while the Brits have earmarked $350 million for the technology.
During the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Baker suggested the US government appropriate $3 billion to help open RAN.
New York lawmaker Kathleen Rice, a Democrat, asked Diane Rinaldo, director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition trade group, if $3 billion would be good. Yes, $3 billion would be good, Rinaldo said.
However, JMA Wireless CEO John Mezzalingua described the $3 billion figure as "an important start." His company is another open RAN vendor.
Part of the issue involves the USA Telecom Act, passed last year by Congress to help fund the development of open RAN networks. As noted by the subcommittee's chairman, Democrat Frank Pallone, Jr., Congress must still fund the legislation "so that we can promote and deploy this critical technology to create American jobs here at home, building the networks of the future."
So why should US taxpayers give open RAN a helping hand?
For a variety of reasons, according to proponents.
A string of lawmakers at the hearing asked whether open RAN is secure. The resounding answer was: Yes.
"Knowledge is power," explained Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile, a Japanese operator that launched the world's first big open RAN network. Amin said that open RAN provides valuable insight into network architecture and supply chain for security.
"Security through visibility included every part of our network," Amin explained of his work designing Rakuten's network. "I wanted everything to be open so that we could dictate how we monitor this network and how we apply security, whether to components, software or even hardware itself. That is something on which we made a cognizant choice."
Others agreed: "Promoting diversity and security in the 5G supply chain is of global interest and will require a common solution," said Rinaldo of the Open RAN Policy Coalition
How might open RAN bring connectivity to poor or rural Americans who might not be able to afford the Internet or can't access it?
Open RAN proponents had a ready answer: It makes wireless connections cheaper. As a result, they can be constructed in more places.
Rinaldo said that open RAN can be up to 30% less expensive than traditional offerings. And Rakuten's Amin said 30% is just a starting point for Rakuten's savings.
"Consumers have benefitted tremendously" from open RAN, Amin said.
Finally, a number of executives argued that open RAN will ultimately help to fortify the US position against China. After all, US officials have argued that equipment from Chinese vendor Huawei represents a US security threat by opening a backdoor to Chinese spies, though Huawei officials have rejected those allegations.
The only problem is that the US has no domestic alternative to Huawei. At least, not yet.
"American vendors are challenged to compete with subsidized Chinese vendors and other foreign competitors already dominating the market and at scale. Open RAN unbundles and expands the supply chain to allow multiple vendors to coexist and compete, allowing mobile network operators to be less reliant on any single, foreign-owned vendor for their entire network architectures," argued JMA's Mezzalingua. "Supporting open RAN deployment also allows the US government to improve its national security posture by reshoring critical network components from China to the US."
JMA is building a 5G equipment manufacturing facility in Syracuse, New York, that will open this fall and support 200 new jobs. "Our fully-automated 'smart' 5G factory will be powered by JMA 5G O-RAN technology, featuring real-world 5G use cases on display, promoting future competitiveness and the promise of U.S. manufacturing," Mezzalingua explained.
Money, sure, but not mandates
If open RAN is so great, shouldn't US lawmakers just require that operators use the technology?
Not so fast, said Tim Donovan of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), a trade group that represents some of the nation's smaller wireless network operators that are hoping to get roughly $1.9 billion in government money to replace Huawei equipment in their networks.
"The prospect of introducing new vendors into the ecosystem has tremendous potential benefits, but policymakers should not mandate which technologies are used in wireless networks," Donovan explained. "Carriers need flexibility, particularly in the rural and hard to reach areas where CCA members serve. If new technologies like O-RAN live up to their promise, they will succeed in the marketplace and will be deployed based on industry demand and timelines."
Rinaldo, too, said she did not support open RAN equipment mandates.
And the kitchen sink
While most of the hearing focused on the actual features and functions of open RAN, a number of legislators also used the event to bring up topics that were related to open RAN only if you squint real hard.
For example, several lawmakers asked whether new rules around cell site permitting could help with the adoption of open RAN. The question is noteworthy considering the FCC issued guidelines around that exact topic in a bid to speed up the buildout of 5G across the country. The effort was in response to complaints from network operators over expensive and lengthy local rules governing the installation of new cell towers and upgrades to existing ones.
Open RAN proponents generally argued that, yes, new permitting rules would help open RAN technologies. Of course, loosened cell site permitting rules could also help the construction of networks that do not adhere to open RAN specifications, but that was left unsaid during the hearing.
Lawmakers also discussed the government's spectrum-allocation process. Specifically, they questioned whether a tighter partnership between the NTIA (which manages federal spectrum users) and the FCC (which manages commercial spectrum users) would speed the uptake of open RAN. Those questions don't come as a surprise considering subcommittee leaders recently called on the NTIA to take a firmer grip on the management of federal spectrum users.
In general, open RAN proponents pointed out that spectrum is critical to the operation of wireless networks – a statement that again is equally true for open RAN and systems that are not open.
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