FCC talks on 5G Open Radio Access Networks at day-long forum

On Sept. 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) led a virtual forum on 5G Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN). FCC Chairman Ajit Pai hosted the forum with guest speakers, including diplomats, such as the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, policy experts, technology leaders, and academics.

ORAN is the acronym to describe a recent shift in telecommunications that now permits cellular radio access networks to be composed of hardware and software components from multiple vendors that are indeed “open and interoperable.” Previously, telecommunications companies had been prohibited from using multiple vendors.

ORAN supporters claim it is a victory for consumers because it allows them to enjoy products from around the world while also avoiding stifling innovation and security risks. 

In his opening remarks, Pai stressed that the United States had taken many positive steps in our move toward 5G, including combatting China’s market dominance stemming from their artificially lowering prices on telecommunications hardware, such as cell phones and computers. Some steps include preventing taxpayer funds from being used to purchase equipment or technology from threatening companies, primarily Huawei and ZTE, and establishing a process to remove and replace harmful equipment from these companies as soon as Congress passed funding.

“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,” explained Chairman Pai. “But Open RANs can fundamentally disrupt this marketplace. We could see exponential growth in the number and diversity of suppliers. We could see more cost-effective solutions. And critically, we could see the keys to security in the hands of network operators, as opposed to a Chinese vendor.”

Secretary Pompeo expressed his support for the FCC and Chairman Pai’s effort to “free as much space on the 5G network as possible” while also promoting The Clean Network, a coalition of companies and countries “committed to protecting user privacy and cybersecurity from malign actors,” launched this past August.

Congresswoman Jane Harman, the President and CEO of the Wilson Center, and Robert Blair, the director of policy and strategic planning for the U.S. Department of Commerce, both stressed the possibilities of continued innovation in global trade that ORAN contained for the American consumer.

According to Blair, the current system is bad for consumers, companies, and countries. It prevents consumers from accessing new technologies, limits competition for innovative companies, and prevents countries from building healthy societies as they have untrustworthy and insecure telecommunications.

“We need to invest in this technology,” explained FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.

He continued to say that to get the best value for taxpayers, policymakers should “ explore that each ‘rip and replace’ carrier rebuilding its network be required to consider solutions offered by an O-RAN provider.”

“Doing so would achieve goals such as global competition with Huawei, capitalizing on U.S. software advantages, accelerating the development of ORAN as a product-model and a business-case, and allowing for alternative vendors to enter the market and offer specific network solutions,” he added.

After opening remarks, the event was split into four sessions with comments from various FCC commissioners at each session’s end.

The first session, titled Introduction to Open, Interoperable and Virtualized Networks, was a discussion led by Tareq Amin, chief technology officer of Rakuten; Caroline Chen, vice president and general manager of 5G Infrastructure Management Platform Group at Intel; Thierry Maupilé, executive vice president and chief of strategy for Aliastar; and Sachin Katti, a board member of the ORAN Alliance and professor at Stanford University.

The session provided a cursory overview of the improvements that could be expected from the recent shift. All participants agreed that the United States and their allies’ possibilities would be endless, spurring more innovation on both hardware and software systems, with the chance of virtualizing networks.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr focused on the ability for opening networks to produce to jobs, adding, “By unbundling, we produce jobs opening up the marketplace to smaller providers, ones that are experts on software which happens to benefit U.S. companies, such as Altiostar, Parallel Wireless, and many others.”

The second panel, titled Benefits of Deployment/Driving Innovation, focused primarily on private sector companies and where they can effectively innovate.

Panelists included executives from Qualcomm, IBM, semiconductor foundry GlobalFoundries, network infrastructure provider CommScope, Open RAN Policy Coalition, Dell, and technology company NVIDIA.

Panelists discussed the various benefits of 5G and Open RAN, the greatest being the increased diversification of the radio access network market, allowing for global competition and innovation.

According to the panelists, Open RAN disaggregates the network into smaller pieces making it more manageable and flexible for innovators to create more interfaces for technology consumers.

“Whether it is reducing reliance on foreign manufacturing or providing incentives to harden physical infrastructure and protect corresponding software from intrusions,” explained FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly. “Open RAN can reduce threats to overall network security, if done properly, and give users the necessary confidence to transmit even the most sensitive data at any time and from any location.”

Nonetheless, O’Reilly said that the FCC and other agencies must be willing to step out of the way to ensure that companies can adapt to this technology.

The forum continued with a third panel titled Lessons from the Field: Where Do We Go From Here? 

The panel, moderated by Chairman Pai, consisted of representatives from software company Mavenir, AT&T, DISH, Hewlett Packard, Jio, Parallel Wireless, and Nokia.

Representatives, looking back at the switch from 3G to 4G, noted that switching to 5G and Open RAN technology contains many of the same challenges, whether establishing a universal standard, ensuring access for rural, suburban, and urban consumers, or ensuring that vendors are equipped to provide the necessary technology for the switch.

Representatives noted that Open RAN would allow for the next switch of technology from 5G to 6G to be done with much more ease, creativity, flexibility, and innovation, especially with increased virtualization.

“The virtualization of R.A.N. (radio access networks) is a really great opportunity that brings flexibility,” remarked Marie-Paule Odini, research director for Hewlett Packard. “Everything becomes pure software, so it is much more affordable.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, along with her colleagues, stressed that security was the most critical challenge that the FCC must face.

She added, “Restrictions on Huawei and ZTE are a minor fix for a much larger problem. While we can ban a few specific products, services, or companies, no country can isolate itself completely when we are connected worldwide. We must focus now on our competitiveness, on strengthening our alliances around the world, and on reasserting our values—by building a new market for 5G equipment. That is how we will restore American leadership and secure 5G.”

The forum concluded with a final panel titled Technical Deep Dive, with representatives from universities, such as Northeastern, Rutgers, and the University of Utah, and organizations, such Blue Danube Systems, MITRE, Oracle, and Verizon.

This panel focused on technical challenges that must be addressed for an effective Open RAN system to work, such as low bandwidth, establishing a standard that all vendors can meet, modernizing specific hardware and software systems, and performance bottlenecks.

Some panelists suggested that A.I. could be a possible solution for these challenges. Others, including FCC Chief Technology Officer Monisha Ghosh, noted that A.I. has its own set of challenges. A.I., she insisted, is not a cure-all and is prone to its own biases and prejudices.

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