FCC’s Pai bullish on open RAN, virtualization

FCC headquarters
The FCC closed it facilities in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ser Amantio di Nicolao/ CC BY-3.0)

The FCC had to postpone its forum on 5G virtualized radio access network (RAN) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said on Thursday that he’s eager to get that back on the calendar once it’s safe to do so.

The forum had been scheduled for March 26 in Washington, D.C. “It’s an important conversation,” he told webinar host Bruce Mehlman, Internet Innovation Alliance (IAA) chairman and former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy. Mehlman then suggested the vRAN event be held virtually, the type of meeting the chairman has been getting used to since the lock-down.  

As initially planned, the forum was to comprise a panel of experts including Rakuten CTO Tareq Aim, Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon, Altiostar EVP of Strategy Thierry Maupilé and Mavenir SVP John Baker, as well as experts and execs from Dish Network, Intel, IBM, VMware, Ciena, Reliance Jio, and CableLabs, among others.

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Asked about 5G and the current network landscape, Pai said he tends to be “very bullish” on the next several years in terms of the development of open or virtual RAN solutions. That’s not to say that open RAN will completely displace the full stack hardware approach used today, he said, adding that it's going to be a much more nuanced 5G network architecture going forward.  

RELATED: Coronavirus stalls FCC summit on 5G, vRAN

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

Pai said he’s had a chance over the past several months to visit with some very interesting companies doing work in this space. When he was in Japan in December, he met with Rakuten and heard about some of the ground-breaking efforts they’re doing. Here in the U.S., companies like Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Altiostar may not be household names, but they’re doing important work, he said.

The hope is that not only will the software-based approach be more cost-effective for wireless carriers to deploy, especially at scale, but it also will bring improvements in security.

From a security perspective, “the operators would have more insight into some of the security vulnerabilities or strengths of their networks,” he said.

The idea is that with a software-based solution, the operator retains more control over the management of the network. “I think giving operators much more control will ultimately be better from the security perspective, for them and for the country,” he said.  

The Open RAN Policy Coalition on Thursday released a white paper (PDF) on 5G and open RAN security that it says addresses one of the common misconceptions about an open RAN: that open interfaces introduce security risk. “In fact, these same open interfaces, defined in technical specifications, provide a foundation and architecture for improving security,” the coalition said.

Busy times

Asked if he will consider remaining as the FCC chairman if the president wins a second term, Pai said that’s not even on his radar: “I’m not thinking about any of that stuff.”

At a Senate FCC oversight hearing on Wednesday, a number of topics came up, from 5G to rural broadband, and “we’ve been racing ahead on so many different fronts that I haven’t had time to stop and think about what comes next,” he said.

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