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Five takeaways from the FCC's open RAN event

The FCC hosted a full day of discussions about open RAN technology Monday featuring many of the top executives in the space, from Rakuten's Tareq Amin to Sachin Katti, a leader in the O-RAN Alliance. Also speaking at the event were Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Robert Blair, director of policy and strategic planning for the Commerce Department, and all five of the FCC's commissioners.

Although it initially may seem strange for the US telecom industry's regulator to assemble that kind of menagerie, the reason is clear: Open RAN has become a diacatholicon, a cure-all, thanks in part to its ambiguity. Because it's so new, open RAN can be everything to everyone, whether the goal involves securing Americans' freedom or building a successful startup.

"We have a chance right now to build a telecommunications system that will protect the principles of freedom and openness that this country was founded upon," proclaimed Robert Blair, a Commerce Department official who is in charge of the Trump administration's 5G efforts.

"We are really counting on open RAN for our success at this stage," said Amit Jain of mysterious startup Verana Networks.

Whether open RAN technology can deliver on such diverse hopes remains to be seen. After all, the technology at its core promises only to create interoperable connections between various radio access network (RAN) components like radios and baseband units.

Nonetheless, speakers at the FCC's virtual "Forum on 5G Open Radio Access Networks" had much to say on the topic. Here are five top takeaways from the event:

Huawei is bad, and open RAN is good
"The Chinese Communist Party is leveraging its technological prowess to erode freedom and democracy at home and around the world," argued Trump's State Department chief Pompeo in opening remarks at the FCC's event. It was the first time a US secretary of state has spoken at an FCC event.

Pompeo used his appearance to tout his new "clean networks" and "clean countries" campaign.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai too argued that open RAN could potentially create alternatives to Huawei and other Chinese vendors. "Open RAN could disrupt this marketplace," he said. "We could see a diversity of suppliers, cost-effective solutions, and the keys to security in the hands of network operators as opposed to a Chinese vendor."

But he added: "How this marketplace will evolve is hard to predict with certainty."

Open RAN is either ripe or immature, depending on who you ask
"It is absolutely real," Rakuten's Amin said of open RAN, adding that the Japanese operator initially considered purchasing equipment from Huawei before opting to travel the open RAN route.

"We're scratching the surface of what's possible," Amin added.

Others agreed.

"We're in a great position and a very unique position to accelerate this buildout and create a platform that is really going to unlock innovation for US companies," said Dish Network's Stephen Bye.

But speakers from AT&T and Verizon expressed far more hesitancy on the open RAN question not surprising considering they both operate extensive legacy 3G and 4G networks.

"There is considerably more work to do" in open RAN, said AT&T's Laurie Bigler, adding that the operator expects a "gradual" introduction of open RAN into its network. She did not specify a specific timeline.

"We're extremely interested in advancing open RAN," said Verizon's Lori Fountain. "We support O-RAN entirely and know it is the future. We will be adopting this critical architecture in a timeframe that successfully allows the network to mature gracefully, but at the same time protecting our customers."

She, too, did not specify a timeline.

The US government should do... something... to promote open RAN
Several industry executives and government officials expressed support for US government intervention of some kind into open RAN.

"They can put their money where their mouth is," suggested CommScope's Morgan Kurk when questioned on the issue. He said that the feds could put money into open RAN to "de-risk investments" by startups.

"Each country can stimulate this free market, this O-RAN, slightly differently," Kurk added. "As long as everybody is working toward the common goal of a level playing field."

Others offered more specific suggestions. For example, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argued that Congress should pass legislation allocating $750 million for open RAN R&D. She also said the FCC should consider offering open RAN "incentives" to US companies that use government money to rip out their existing Huawei equipment.

But outgoing Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly argued that the government shouldn't engage in technology mandates. "We must not pick winners and losers," he said.

And Charles Mathias, the associate chief of the FCC's wireless bureau, pointed out that the telecom industry usually argues against government meddling in business.

Nonetheless, Nvidia's Soma Velayutham maintained that 5G is a special case. "I would definitely agree that the FCC or government needs to take a more active role. It's a strategic industry. It's not just any industry," he said. "This is the fabric of the next industrial revolution."

Velayutham suggested that the FCC issue credits in its upcoming spectrum auctions to bidders that promise to use open RAN technology.

Open RAN is more secure, probably
Although open RAN technology is still in its infancy, many speakers at the event argued that it would create more secure wireless networks.

Rakuten's Amin said that open RAN adds a layer of transparency for mobile network operators. "It really is an unparalleled opportunity," he said.

And Dish's Bye said that "it's a lot easier to find the cockroaches when the lights are on."

However, Mitre's Charles Clancy said that the open RAN security story hasn't been fully fleshed out yet. Mitre is a nonprofit that operates federally funded research and development centers.

Similarly, infrastructure vendor Ericsson which did not participate in the FCC's open RAN event last week signaled a warning over open RAN security.

Open RAN will open the door to new vendors
Most speakers agreed that open RAN technology will create new opportunities for smaller networking vendors. That's noteworthy considering behemoths like Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia today control the vast majority of the wireless equipment market, having scooped up a range of smaller suppliers like Motorola, Alcatel, Lucent and Nortel.

"The ecosystem in 5G is relatively small" compared with AI, healthcare and other industries, argued Dell's John Roese. "The ecosystem has to get larger."

And IBM's Craig Farrell said his company is already working with some smaller suppliers because of open RAN.

But Nokia's Marcus Weldon issued an open RAN plea to the wider industry: "Incumbent vendors are not bad. Incumbent vendors that embrace open should be encouraged as part of the ecosystem."

"We've really always been open," Weldon added, noting that he participated in the FCC's event freely and "I haven't been dragged here."

But Mavenir's John Baker used his appearance at the FCC's event to reiterate his company's desire for "real" open RAN and not a watered down version that could exclude upstarts like Mavenir.

"The devil is in the details," he said.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano


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