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open RAN

Open RAN vendors get another helping hand from US regulators

The FCC's acting chief proposed naming two new wireless network testing locations, partly in an attempt to add more momentum to the open RAN trend.

Specifically, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed establishing "innovation zones" in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts. The FCC-designated, city-scale testing sites would be managed by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR). If the agency's other commissioners approve Rosenworcel's proposal, the two cities would join New York City and Salt Lake City as wireless network testing locations, following the FCC's vote in 2019 to name testing centers in those locations.

In her proposal, Rosenworcel said Boston will house the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Colosseum network emulator, which was used in the agency's now-completed Spectrum Collaboration Challenge. Raleigh, meantime, will house the previously announced Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless (AERPAW), which focuses on wireless communications for drones and other unmanned aerial systems.

The FCC's two existing innovation zones have already played a key role in the early days of open RAN. The O-RAN Alliance – one of the main groups developing standards for open RAN networks – has conducted two worldwide plugfests. The first, at the end of 2019, included activities in New York City's innovation zone, 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 both AT&T and Verizon. Both of the O-RAN Alliance's plugfest events in the US operated through the NSF's PAWR program.

Showcasing open RAN

Rosenworcel announced her new proposal in conjunction with the FCC's two-day open RAN showcase. The event is designed to bring together open RAN vendors, operators and others in an attempt to foster the development of US-based network technology companies.

"I was actually the first at the Federal Communications Commission to speak about the power of opening radio access networks. And we've come a long way since then," Rosenworcel said during the FCC's open RAN showcase Wednesday. "Back then, if you were building out a wireless network, you had only four major vendors for mobile network equipment to choose from, none of which hailed from the United States. That meant you were likely to deploy your network using proprietary, end-to-end gear from one major vendor. And as you started to think about upgrading to 5G, vendor lock-in loomed large."

She said the agency's open RAN showcase, and its two newly proposed innovation zones, are intended to help break open the open RAN market in the US. "Open RAN hardware and software is now projected to reach 10% of the total market during the next few years," Rosenworcel said. "And most notably – we are no longer thinking about wireless equipment just in an end-to-end way. Instead, we are thinking about it as a more diverse and modular architecture. And when we do that, we are finding there are lots of companies in the United States that can compete really well in this market."

A large number of companies are scheduled to make presentations during the FCC's two-day open RAN showcase. For example, Ericsson, Blue Danube, Fujitsu and others used the event to discuss their approach to the open RAN market. And Dish Network's Stephen Bye said the operator is well into its initial deployment of a coast-to-coast 5G network using open RAN designs.

"The technology works," he said during the FCC's event. "We're down into execution."

Open RAN as a Huawei replacement

The FCC's open RAN showcase also dovetails with the agency's "rip and replace" program for Huawei and ZTE equipment. The agency for years has been working on the parameters of a program designed to allocate almost $2 billion in Congressional funding to US network operators that have Huawei and ZTE equipment in their networks. Such equipment has been deemed a threat to national security, and thus needs to be removed.

The agency is scheduled to start accepting applications for reimbursement in its "rip and replace" program in October.

Although the FCC is not requiring operators to use open RAN equipment in their replacement efforts, the agency is suggesting that as an option.

"Removing insecure equipment from existing networks after installation is hard because historically these systems were closed and deeply integrated, with little opportunity to mix and match equipment from different vendors. In some cases, this will mean starting over from scratch," Rosenworcel explained. "The FCC will continue to work to ensure that secure alternatives exist for carriers taking advantage of this program. We want companies cutting out high-risk hardware from their networks to have the opportunity to use a range of trusted alternatives. That means traditional end-to-end proprietary gear. But it also means newer opportunities like open RAN."

It's worth noting that the FCC commissioned a study conducted by Widelity that found that open RAN equipment costs about the same as traditional RAN equipment. Mavenir, an open RAN vendor, has urged the FCC and Widelity to conduct another study on the topic, arguing open RAN equipment is actually cheaper. Officials from Widelity did not respond to recent questions from Light Reading on the topic.

New open RAN vendors

Interestingly, one of the companies that appears to be chasing the FCC's "rip and replace" business is Japan's Rakuten. The company recently disclosed a June meeting that included Hiroshi (Mickey) Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten Group, Amit Patel, CEO and president of Rakuten Americas, and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. The Rakuten officials discussed the company's construction of an open RAN network in Japan and its new Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP). Rakuten developed RCP as it constructed its mobile network, and is now selling the platform globally.

"Specifically, Rakuten discussed ... how American wireless carriers can deploy a cloud-native network running on the Rakuten Communications Platform at lower cost, higher security, and more quickly than traditional wireless appliances," the company wrote of its meeting with FCC officials.

The company also made sure to point out that "Rakuten Mobile is a technology company with US tech DNA." The company said its mobile network uses equipment from US companies like Altiostar and Intel. Specifically, Rakuten said that 44% of its mobile network radio technologies trace their origin to US companies, and 70% of its cloud technologies trade their origin to US companies.

Finally, another US government agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), plans to conduct open RAN equipment testing "to increase familiarity with the equipment and to assess open RAN performance, interoperability, security and potential economic impact."

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

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