Wicker Pushes for Mapping, “Rip & Replace” Funds As Dell Pushes Open RAN

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Senate Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) is pushing lawmakers to allocate funds for so-called “rip & replace,” and to improve the FCC’s broadband mapping this month. Congress is also considering proposals to devote money to R&D for Open RAN 5G network protocols.

During a keynote session for INCOMPAS Monday, Wicker said the Commission’s broadband coverage maps are woefully inaccurate. The internet and competitive networks association represents companies that provide broadband voice, video, internet, and data offerings, using both wireline and wireless networks to reach their customers.

Concerning the maps, Wicker said in Mississippi, they show the state has 98 percent broadband coverage, a claim the Senator called “utterly ridiculous.” Yet he recognizes the agency needs $65 million to implement changes. 

Wicker is working with the Senate Appropriations Committee to allocate the money. “I hope it’s done during September.”

The FCC recently estimated it will cost between $1.6 to $1.8 billion to fund “rip & replace,” the removal of untrusted gear from wireless networks, Inside Towers reported. The funds are for rural telecoms who wouldn’t have the means to remove Huawei and ZTE gear from their networks and replace it with new, secure equipment. Wicker is working to garner this funding in September as well.

In general, Wicker said the committee is also planning for the next generation of broadband, 5G. Implementing it “means making more spectrum available and modernizing wireless infrastructure,” he said. “We also face a shortage of workers necessary to deploy 5G.” He noted the Department of Labor is working with the telecom industry to provide training and technical skills to address the shortage.

During the same keynote, Dell Technologies Founder and CEO Michael Dell agreed that 5G demands an entirely new network architecture. “We should focus on open innovation over proprietary solutions. Open RAN can help the U.S.” Not investing in 5G will result in “digital inequality,” Dell said.

Open RAN, or open Radio Access Networks, refers to a new paradigm where cellular radio networks are comprised of hardware and software components from multiple vendors operating over network interfaces that are open and interoperable. Supporters say Open RAN will lead to more vendor diversity and better network security.  

Dell said industry and the FCC must work together in a partnership on 5G. “The U.S. needs a national strategy to create a larger ecosystem.” Such a partnership can focus on 5G standards, supply chains and national security issues, he explained.

Not focusing on 5G in a coordinated way “would be a horrible mistake,” Dell said. “Open RAN will enable faster networks, especially in rural areas.” He said 5G with Open RAN architecture will be more cost-effective than running fiber for connectivity, especially in areas with a low population density. He predicted it will also lower the equipment costs for telcos.

The FCC organized several experts to discuss Open RAN Monday. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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