Plenty of hot air has been expelled in recent months by policymakers, lobbyists, lawmakers and others regarding open RAN technology. Their general argument is that open RAN can help grow the field of US-based 5G suppliers in order to create a bulwark against the onslaught of purported Chinese spying led by Huawei.
Now President Biden's official telecommunications agency is issuing an ultimatum on the topic. In essence the agency's message is: Put up or shut up.
The effort – which could have major implications for not only the open RAN trend but the wider 5G industry in general – comes from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The NTIA is the Executive Branch agency "responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues."
Meaning, this initiative comes from the highest levels of the US government.
Further, the scope of the effort is significant. Through its Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (ITS) testing division, NTIA said it is issuing a "Broad Agency Announcement" in order to obtain either prototype or commercial equipment "used in open RAN 4G and 5G networks, as well as virtualized RAN (vRAN) software and RAN automation software." Specifically the agency is looking for open RAN Radio Units (RU), Distributed Units (DU), Central Units (CU) and combination units (CU/DU and RU/CU/DU, for example) as well as open RAN network control and RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) software.
The agency said the equipment should adhere to standards "such as those developed by the O-RAN Alliance, Telecom Infra Project, etc."
The US government's ultimate goal? "To increase familiarity with the equipment and to assess open RAN performance, interoperability, security and potential economic impact."
"The development of open interfaces and vendor diversity are a significant part of NTIA's overall vision for building out secure 5G networks," explained Acting NTIA Administrator Evelyn Remaley in a release. "Today's announcement is an important step for testing the ability of these technologies to interoperate and scale, and to achieve a more secure and resilient global 5G supply chain."
Participation and price tags
Importantly, vendors that participate in the program will need to clearly explain how much their equipment costs. "Offerors shall submit a price proposal that provides a complete and total price, which will include the price per device, any detailed breakdown of the labor hours and rates for the technical support, and other general business information. If necessary, NTIA will request additional price back-up information, resumes or supplemental information as appropriate," according to the agency's announcement.
That language is important considering there's a heated debate at the FCC over exactly how much open RAN equipment costs. The debate was sparked by a Widelity report that provides incredibly detailed pricing information for virtually every aspect of a wireless network. It appears to show that prices for open RAN equipment are relatively the same as prices for regular, traditional RAN equipment – a situation that some open RAN companies have begun fighting against.
Shortly after the NTIA issued its open RAN ultimatum Friday, a number of smaller US open RAN hardware and software suppliers said they may participate in the agency's new effort.
"Airspan is a proven leader in providing open RAN software and hardware solutions, and welcomes the opportunity to participate with NTIA to help accelerate open RAN adoption and enhance the ecosystem," Chris Salemme, VP of government affairs and strategy for Airspan, told Light Reading in a statement.
"Parallel Wireless is excited to learn that the NTIA's ITS will be procuring and testing state-of-the-art open RAN hardware and software which is cost effective and easy to deploy, enabling 4G and 5G networks, driving the US innovation in 5G," Eugina Jordan, VP of marketing at Parallel Wireless, told Light Reading in a statement.
"JMA applauds NTIA’s initiative to validate the promise of competitive 5G and a diverse 5G vender community," JMA Wireless' VP of communications and external affairs, Bill Plummer, told Light Reading in a statement.
Mavenir declined to comment on the NTIA's announcement.
It's also worth noting that the NTIA's announcement comes as the US military continues to look at how 5G and open source software might play a role in its operations.
"We are really working across the 5G initiative to understand and develop [the] necessary security standards within DoD," Joe Evans, the top 5G official at the US Department of Defense (DoD), said at a recent event, according to FedScoop. The DoD has extensive 5G ambitions, and works closely with the NTIA.
Implications and ramifications
The NTIA's announcement could have significant consequences for the global wireless industry. That's because the US continues to lead an international campaign against Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE under the argument that Chinese spies can use that equipment for digital eavesdropping. (Huawei and ZTE have rejected those allegations.)
However, the US government's efforts have been somewhat hamstrung by the fact that there are no longer any major domestic wireless equipment alternatives following industry consolidation that eliminated vendors like Nortel and Motorola. And though Nordic suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson have pointed to their extensive US operations, US lawmakers nonetheless remain keen to foster US-based 5G suppliers.
And that's why the open RAN trend – which until recently comprised a set of obscure wireless networking standards – has gained so much attention in the US and internationally. Policymakers across the globe are hoping open RAN can foster the development of local suppliers, thereby creating taxable income and jobs and political leverage.
Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal article detailing the rise of US-based 5G software and hardware suppliers such as JMA Wireless, Airspan Networks, Altiostar, Mavenir, JMA and Parallel Wireless carried the not-so-subtle headline "The US Is Back in the 5G Game."
More broadly though, open RAN does promise to upend the traditional architecture of wireless networks by disaggregating networking components into interchangeable pieces that operators can mix and match. For example, an Airspan radio could sit atop a Nokia basestation via open RAN interfaces, rather than Nokia supplying both elements in a way they could not be separated.
It's that ability to snap in new networking ingredients that has so many companies in the global 5G industry interested. After all, under an open RAN design a new supplier can focus on just one section of the network – and sell its wares to customers – rather than needing to supply everything to get its foot in the door.
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