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Security

FCC pays lip service to open RAN in 'rip and replace' program

The FCC voted Thursday to implement a program that will pay some US network operators to rip out their Huawei and ZTE equipment and replace it with "trusted" infrastructure.

However, the effort's details remain somewhat vague, including exactly where network operators can turn to for replacement parts.

Interestingly, the agency did offer one clear guideline on the topic: It's OK for network operators in the program to use open RAN equipment.

"The Replacement List should include equipment and services equipped, or upgradable to, be used in O-RAN, or in virtualized networks," the FCC wrote in its new 130-page order on the topic, using the "O-RAN" moniker to refer to open RAN technology. "Including O-RAN equipment and services ... is consistent with the Secure Networks Act's requirement that the Replacement List be technologically neutral."

FCC officials have made no secret of their interest in open RAN, having recently held a full-day seminar on the topic.

Not surprisingly, the FCC's open RAN comments raised cheers from open RAN proponents.

"Mavenir applauds today's FCC vote to protect mobile networks from equipment that poses serious threats to US national security, and we appreciate the FCC's determination that open RAN solutions will be eligible for the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program," the company wrote in a statement distributed to the media. Mavenir builds both open RAN hardware and software.

"The Open RAN Policy Coalition applauds the Federal Communications Commission for its unanimous vote in support of making open RAN solutions eligible for the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program," said Open RAN Policy Coalition Executive Director Diane Rinaldo in a statement distributed to the media. The association is pushing governments around the world to promote open RAN technology. "Because open and interoperable interfaces provide a foundation and architecture for security in the US communications supply chain, carriers should be encouraged to consider such solutions when upgrading or replacing equipment."

However, the FCC declined to provide specifics on exactly which vendors, and exactly what equipment, US operators can use to replace equipment from the Chinese vendors, which has been deemed a threat to national security.

"We establish, and will publish on our website, a Replacement List that will identify the categories of suggested replacements of real and virtual hardware and software equipment and services to guide of providers removing covered communications equipment from their networks," the FCC wrote. "The Replacement List should include categories of replacements rather than try to identify suggested replacements, because ... creating a list of suggested replacements would have negative consequences, such as the Commission being seen as picking favored equipment and manufacturers and imposing de facto mandates of specific equipment."

Added the agency: "We believe the better approach in developing the Replacement List is to identify categories of replacement equipment and services that providers of advanced communications service could then look to as they determine the proper equipment and services for their networks."

The FCC also argued that maintaining a detailed list of replacements would remove the incentive for operators to conduct their own security assessments – assessments that apparently did not identify Huawei and ZTE as security threats in the first place.

Regardless, a number of telecom trade groups cheered the FCC's new ruling.

"TIA members support the FCC's order for this important program that will facilitate the replacement of network equipment that could pose a significant threat to our national security," said David Stehlin, CEO of TIA, in a statement. "In the midst of a pandemic, we depend on our networks more than ever to keep us working and learning from home."

Despite the FCC's unanimous ruling on the program, the issue is not over. The FCC has estimated the full "rip and replace" program could cost $2 billion or more, money that Congress must still allocate.

"The FCC stands ready to fully implement the reimbursement program once Congress provides this funding," outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

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

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