Open RAN Gets Full Airing

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The FCC held a full-court administration press for Open RAN Monday. The forum focused on a recent push to open telecom network protocols in the wireless Radio Access Network. Supporters believe the move would widen the network market to more companies and better position the U.S. to challenge overseas 5G hardware giants like China’s Huawei (see lede story.)

Commission Chair Ajit Pai referenced Huawei and the effort to “rip & replace” what the administration says is untrusted gear from wireless networks. Huawei’s market power makes it “seem” the cheapest place to buy gear from, said Pai. However, Pai noted those prices are subsidized by the Chinese Communist Party. The Chairman explained China’s communications companies are required to cooperate with their country’s intelligence community and keep that work secret. 

“Many are recognizing you get what you pay for. Using insecure equipment will outweigh savings” in the long run, said Pai. Open RAN enables benefits such as vendor diversity, according to the Chairman. That is “useful in terms of price competition, avoiding the lock-in problem, and ensuring a backup supplier, among other things.”

Traditionally, wireless networks rely on a closed architecture in which a single vendor supplies many or all the components between network base stations and the core. “Open RANs can transform 5G network architecture,” as well as provide more security than closed networks, he explained. “But Open RANs can disrupt the marketplace.” The outcome could be more suppliers and cost-effective solutions. Noting many Open RANS are U.S.-based, Pai said such innovation and competition will “make for a stronger wireless ecosystem.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said 30 counties support the U.S. efforts to ensure network security; he called them “clean telcos” that support Pai’s 5G network goals. “We want our friends to choose trusted vendors for their 5G network needs,” said Pompeo.

The so-called “clean network” program seeks to exclude Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei and ZTE, as well as apps, cloud service providers and undersea cables from their internet networks.

The U.S. is concerned about national security threats from services provided by Chinese technology companies like Huawei and ZTE, saying data potentially could be accessed by the Chinese government. Those companies deny their technology poses a security risk.

Robert Blair, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning for the Department of Commerce, said the National Telecommunications Information Administration is working to make more spectrum available for 5G networks. And agencies like the National Institute of Standards and Technology are increasing their focus and investment on advanced communications to identify security gaps. NIST launched a program concerning supply chain risks that relates to Pompeo’s “clean network” program.

The government faces a “serious challenge” in this regard, said Blair, in that “only a few companies are building 5G network equipment. Pai named four: Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia, and South Korea’s Samsung. But he noted China’s Huawei is the largest. 

“Authoritarian governments have no respect for personal privacy protections,” said Blair. He called it “bad” for telecoms and American citizens when only a few companies can manufacture certain equipment.

“As part of a national strategy to secure 5G,” the efforts underway “will increase vendor diversity. We know industry is eager to build and deploy open 5G networks,” said Blair. “Government has got to help.”

by Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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