US government publishes federal 5G purchasing guidelines

The US General Services Administration (GSA) this week published its "Acquisition Guidance for Procuring 5G Technology," a 28-page guide for federal agencies on how to make use of the next-generation technology.

The document doesn't contain many surprises. It doesn't list any specific 5G equipment suppliers, like Ericsson or Mavenir, nor does it name any 5G service providers like T-Mobile or Verizon. However, it offers a clear view into the inner mechanics of the technology, giving federal purchasers a basic, plain-English look at what sets 5G apart from 4G and other wireless technologies.

The guide touches on several hot-button issues, including 5G security and open RAN operations. It also offers a few pointers on how federal agencies could use advanced 5G services, ranging from fixed wireless access (FWA) to edge computing. But it doesn't make any firm stipulations on procurement – other than avoiding Chinese suppliers like Huawei and ZTE – nor does it offer any new insights about how the US government might advance the American 5G industry.

Security and use cases

"The primary intended audience is the acquisition integrated project team (IPT) for an agency planning or performing a 5G-related project. This includes federal IT managers, procurement officers and contracting officers," according to the guide, which was assembled by officials in federal agencies including NASA, the Department of Defense and the NTIA.

A large chunk of the report is dedicated to the topic of security, citing extensively from various reports from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on how to secure government systems.

(Source: Marcos Alvarado/Alamy Stock Photo)
(Source: Marcos Alvarado/Alamy Stock Photo)

"While the deployment of 5G presents new opportunities for better services, agencies need to consider several risks," the document warns. "Secure 5G implementation requires planning for resilience at the design phase and mitigating network exposure to untrustworthy elements."

Another section offers a glance at how federal agencies might use 5G. Suggested applications beyond smartphones include wireless services in healthcare, ship-to-shore communications, asset tracking, smart city offerings, traffic control safety networks and vehicle-to-vehicle services. The document also links to a 2020 publication from the Federal Mobility Group (FMG) that developed a longer and more detailed list of federal 5G use cases.

The guide nods to federal interest in open RAN technology: "O-RAN is a new approach that can add flexibility, interoperability, and market competition through standardized interfaces and multi-vendor infrastructures. Although O-RAN is not the only approach for 5G, federal agencies anticipate being able to manage private O-RAN 5G networks for secure enterprise use."

But the GSA also warns that open RAN "could introduce a new set of supply-chain vulnerabilities."

Federal 5G, now and later

"We're pleased to be issuing this guidance to ensure that government can make the most of secure 5G in its efforts to deliver for the American people," said Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Sonny Hashmi in a GSA release.

The US government, starting under President Obama, has long been interested in 5G. Initially much of the federal discussion around the technology involved allocating more spectrum to commercial 5G operators and making it easier for them to build 5G networks. Driving such efforts were concerns that the US might fall behind China and other international rivals in the development of a technology that could be critical to the global economy.

Under the Trump administration, 5G interests turned to security. A major element involved the overt elimination of Chinese suppliers from the US telecom industry and in some international markets. Related to that, federal officials also cheered open RAN as a technology that could open the door to domestic equipment suppliers.

Today, federal interest in 5G is cooling as AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile complete the bulk of their initial 5G network upgrades. The Biden administration's latest efforts involve freeing up more federal spectrum for future 5G and 6G networks.

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

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