A concerted push for the US government to fund research into open 5G technologies has gained additional momentum – with a bipartisan letter from 38 lawmakers to the leaders of the House of Representatives urging them to support the Open RAN initiative.
Open RAN is an attempt by mainly American corporations to open up 5G technology development beyond proprietary designs. While China can produce the tech cheaper, Open RAN intends to do it better, and compete on technology, not price, through collaboration and cooperation.
The signatories encompass men and women, Democratic and Republican, and both US coasts as well as the center of the country, and they ask House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to “invest” in open radio access network (RAN) technologies that could “help facilitate a network evolution with the potential to create lasting domestic economic opportunities for American workers while increasing supply chain diversity and promoting competition.”
Or, put more simply, to stop Huawei and other Chinese companies from dominating and controlling the next generation of telecoms technology by funding an open alternative approach that American companies can then dominate.
The letter [PDF] doesn’t give a specific dollar value, though a figure of $750m, in federal grants to companies that work on open RAN tech, was floated around Capitol Hill last month. The technology sits between people’s devices and the broader network, and is critical to the functioning of mobile phones.
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Currently that technology is dominated by proprietary standards, in large part because several different parts of it, physically located at different points in the network, need to work seamlessly together. As a result, the market is, essentially, served by just three global players: Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia.
Although mobile network operators often use all of them as a way to prevent any specific company from dominating, they don’t mix-and-match equipment. Instead one system is used exclusively in one geographic area, and another in a different era.
Huawei and Ericsson have been repeatedly accused of blocking the progress of standards that could encroach on their turf. Huawei has also come to dominate the market in large part because it is cheaper than the other two while offering equivalent, or better, products and features.
Huawei has, however, become a bogeyman for the US intelligence world and the Trump Administration, with both going to extraordinary lengths to stop Huawei’s equipment from being installed globally. Huawei has been hit with embargoes, American networks and US government organizations were forbidden from buying and using its gear, and Uncle Sam's high-ranking officials repeatedly put pressure on Western nations to undertake similar bans, citing national security concerns and even threatening to cut intelligence sharing.
That pressure was largely ignored, however, with Germany and the UK, for instance, saying they will not ban Huawei equipment from their national networks. A main reason for that is pure cost: it would cost each country billions of dollars more to go with more expensive alternatives.
Why the letter to Pelosi, though, and why now? That’s simple: Pelosi on Tuesday unveiled the broad details of the Democrats' coronavirus relief plan for America, putting a further $3tn into the US economy to help it survive the impact of the pandemic. The letter hopes to persuade Pelosi and other senior lawmakers to include some funding for open 5G technology. After all, what’s a billion or two more for 5G research?
The letter began: “As you consider additional legislation to maintain economic stability and stimulate growth throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we urge you to provide funding to support the development and deployment of open and interoperable wireless radio access networks (RANs) that can help enable more flexible, efficient, secure, resilient, and intelligent mobile communication.”
The second paragraph also leverages the COVID-19 crisis: “As the COVID-19 outbreak has shown, increased stress on global supply chains can threaten public safety and hinder economic growth. By investing in open radio access network (Open RAN) technologies…”
Last week, the push for Open RAN got a boost when 31 giant corporations ranging from AT&T to VMWare, and including Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle, launched what they called the Open RAN Policy Coalition.
The start of the push to develop open versions of the RAN technology began in earnest in September last year when a lobbying group called Global Cyber Policy Watch (GCPW) railed against Huawei as a national security threat. It argued the US government needs to fund research in open, interoperable standards. Vodafone is particularly keen on the idea as a way to get back into the market, and has said it is already running trials in the UK.
The Open RAN Policy Coalition is not the only group hoping to open up the market. There is also the Open Radio Access Network Alliance (O-RAN) which was started in 2018, includes over 100 companies, and is aimed at interoperable interfaces. And the Telecom Infra Project, headed by Vodafone, which has agreed to work with O-RAN. Huawei is notably absent from O-RAN.
The letter from lawmakers closed: “We strongly encourage you to include provisions in any upcoming coronavirus response legislation that provide funding for grants to speed the development and deployment of open interface standards-based compatible, interoperable equipment, such as equipment developed pursuant to the standards set forth by organizations such as the O-RAN Alliance, the Telecom Infra Project, 3GPP, the O-RAN Software Community.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, reliable communications networks are vital. Making strong investments now will help ensure the US remains the world leader in communications technology for years to come.”
If the money and will does appear to push open RAN tech, it could have a long-lasting and significant impact on the global telecoms industry for decades. But, as even its supporters are willing to admit, there is a long way to go: RAN technology is highly specialized and even a small degradation in quality would be sufficient for mobile operators to stick with the existing solutions. ®