An ongoing deliberation among Washington policymakers centers on a key question: Will open RAN create a bulwark around the US against Chinese espionage? Or is the technology simply another interesting new development in an industry immersed in innovation?
Not surprisingly, telco lobbyists have plenty to say on the topic.
But the heart of the open RAN debate centers, not on security, but whether the technology can help reduce costs for operators.
Nonetheless, to achieve their goals, open RAN proponents are content to push their agendas within the framework of a national security discussion.
"The US should support and prioritize US alternatives to foreign-based equipment providers by encouraging open RAN deployments domestically by directing that federal funding be set aside for such deployments," wrote open RAN vendor Mavenir in a recent filing to the NTIA, an agency in part charged with overseeing the US government's use of spectrum. "The US should encourage the purchase of 5G equipment and services to future proof these networks and ensure security through open interfaces and open RAN."
And the new Open RAN Policy Coalition takes the topic a step further, calling in part for $1 billion from Congress to "spur research and development and deployment towards open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies." The group argued that such funding would "provide a foundation and architecture for improving security."
Moreover, the coalition also urged the US government to use international funding agencies like the EXIM Bank, the US International Development Finance Corporation and USAID to "develop incentives or include preferences" for open RAN around the world, including specifically India and Brazil. (It should come as no surprise that both countries are mulling bans on equipment from China's Huawei.)
Others, however, took a more nuanced approach to the topic.
Tempering open RAN enthusiasm
Ericsson, for example, pointed out that it's a member of the O-RAN Alliance and is "firmly committed to bring together all relevant players and alliances in industry to innovate at global scale" when it comes to open interfaces.
But in its own filing to the NTIA, Ericsson argued that the US "must not lose sight of the 5G race and maintain its market based approach through technology-agnostic policies supporting equal and fair treatment for open RAN and integrated RAN to access government grants/funds."
Similarly, Nokia touted its membership in the O-RAN Alliance and argued for US government funding for the technology. But in its filing it cautioned that "a one-time funding allocation for O-RAN related R&D alone are flawed."
Instead, Nokia argued for a minimum of $1.5 billion for research into open RAN as well as a wide variety of other technologies, including new chip technologies, across both 5G and 6G.
Finally, Verizon the largest wireless carrier in the US offered perhaps the most balanced comments on whether open RAN could protect US networks from the threat of Chinese spying. "Open RAN holds promise, but is not by itself sufficient to promote diversity and competition in the vendor market," the operator said in its filing.
Verizon pointed out that it is a member of both the O-RAN Alliance and the Open RAN Policy Coalition, and that it supports the goal of using open technologies to diversify vendors. "But we urge policymakers not to rely solely on the promise of open RAN," Verizon wrote.
The operator continued: "The strategic imperative of achieving greater supplier diversity will not be solved by open RAN alone in the face of the strategic government support enjoyed by untrusted suppliers. Policy efforts to advance open RAN must also be accompanied by parallel efforts to enable a more robust and competitive supplier ecosystem both in the United States and globally. We therefore urge the Administration and US allies to continue to coordinate to promote policies that implement the Prague Proposals' call for 'open, interoperable, secure standards, and industry best practices to promote a vibrant and robust cyber security supply of products and services.' That requires broader policies to ensure a level playing field for all global 5G vendors. The global market represented by the 32 vibrant market democracies promoting these principles constitute a market large enough to sustain a diverse and competitive vendor base; by contrast, US policies that focus narrowly on the domestic US market would fall short. Verizon therefore urges the Administration to take a broad view of policies and private sector and government allies necessary to create and maintain a diverse set of trusted vendors."
Verizon was among a number of NTIA commenters that urged US policymakers to look to the Prague Proposals for a global template for 5G security.
Open RAN for security (and $$$)
For companies like Mavenir, open RAN promises to open up vast new markets that were once the sole preserve of giant infrastructure giants like Huawei and Ericsson. Indeed, executives from MIMO antenna vendor Blue Danube Systems said the deployment of open RAN was critical to the company's financial success. No wonder the company argued that "Open Radio Access Interfaces should be mandatory" in its NTIA filings.
But for bigger companies like Ericsson and Nokia, open RAN could represent a threat or at least a significant change to their business model. These companies know that operators are keen to mix and match vendors, but they also want to be able to walk into the open RAN frontier on their own terms and not at the command of US government officials.
Finally, wireless network operators like Verizon are undoubtedly pleased at the momentum behind open RAN, but they too fret over government overstep in open RAN. "Market-driven innovation should be a bedrock principle of the nation's 5G strategy," writes CTIA, the US wireless industry's primary trade association, in its filing.
Thus, it's clear that the political hijacking of open RAN continues to muddle the debate around whether the technology can improve the security of US 5G networks. On the one hand, operators are hoping to use open RAN to gain leverage over and lower prices from their existing radio suppliers. On the other hand, US government officials are hoping that open RAN technology can be touted as a viable Huawei alternative on the global stage.
While these two trend lines aren't necessarily related, they're increasingly concurrent.
A 5G strategy conspicuous in its absence
While there's sharp debate over the role the US government should take in open RAN, there's plenty of consensus around the need for an organized federal approach to both cybersecurity in general and 5G specifically. Commenters to the NTIA generally argued for comprehensive and cohesive government oversight when it comes to issues ranging from spectrum for 5G to streamlined tower construction regulations to IoT security.
The NTIA's proceeding itself stems from the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in March. Among other things, the legislation requires the development of a plan to deploy 5G in the US, a plan to address cyber threats to 5G and national security, and a plan to promote "responsible global development and deployment of secure and reliable 5G infrastructure."
But so far, the Trump administration does not have a good track record when it comes to formulating plans of any kind, whether they are to address pandemics, racial inequality, or 5G.
Indeed, this isn't the first time the Trump administration specifically has attempted to create a cohesive strategy around next-generation wireless communications. As highlighted by a lengthy Politico article earlier this year, Trump signed a presidential memorandum calling for the creation of a new national strategy for 5G spectrum by July 2019. Now, almost exactly a year later, it remains unfulfilled.
And there's little chance that open RAN will provide the Trump administration with the 5G magic bullet it's hoping for.