FCC takes up formal discussion on open RAN

open sign
Part of the FCC’s focus on open RAN has to do with security and U.S. leadership in 5G. (Getty Images)

The FCC on Wednesday opened a formal discussion on open RAN, seeking input for a comprehensive record on the state of the technology, benefits and challenges, and how federal policies could help foster development.

At the open meeting, FCC commissioners unanimously supported adoption of a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) introduced by Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in February.

Part of the FCC’s focus on open RAN has to do with security and U.S. leadership in 5G. It’s interested in leveraging the technology to find alternatives to Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE, which have been designated as national security risks. The agency also is looking at how it can help address supply chain challenges and support newer entrants, as there aren’t any U.S. vendors among the major network infrastructure suppliers.

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Rosenworcel noted she raised interest in open RAN nearly two years ago, pointing to its potential for both the U.S. security and supply chain concerns, and said the inquiry is overdue.

“While we continue to take action to slow down untrusted vendors, we also must take action to speed up American innovation,” Rosenworcel said in formal remarks (PDF).  

Today mixing and matching gear in the radio access network (RAN) isn’t much of an option, she said. Historically radio networks have largely used hardware and software from the same vendor. Open RAN looks to disaggregate components, utilize defined open interfaces and allow components like software from different suppliers to run on general-purpose or common hardware. There’s overlap between virtualized RAN and open RAN, but the two are technically different paths.  

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During the FCC meeting, Rosenworcel noted there are four main mobile network equipment vendors to choose from, none of which are from the U.S.

Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia, are the dominant RAN vendors globally, with Samsung making inroads in key markets, particularly the U.S.  

“But if we can unlock the RAN and diversify the equipment in this part of our networks, we may be able to increase security, reduce our exposure to any single foreign vendor, lower costs, and push the equipment market to where the United States is uniquely skilled—in software,” Rosenworcel continued.

U.S. software vendors like Altiostar, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, and others, are among relative newer players in the RAN space that have championed and gained attention for open RAN. Dish Network in the U.S. plans to build a 5G network using open and virtualized RAN architecture. Operators abroad like Telefonica, Vodafone have been pushing trials and interest in open RAN, as well as Japan’s Rakuten Mobile.

RELATED: Telefónica works with Rakuten Mobile to deploy open RAN in phases

At Wednesday’s meeting Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said he’s particularly interested in how the technology can benefit vulnerable U.S. consumers. He was glad the NOI added questions about how open RAN could make 5G services more affordable and accessible for rural and low-income consumers.

“Every American should have access to high-quality, affordable broadband service, and I’m interested in learning if and how Open RAN technology can help us achieve that goal,” Starks said in prepared remarks.

Commissioner Brendan Carr cited increased competition, jobs, and security as attractive aspects of open RAN.

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In addition to the current state of open RAN and opportunities for newer entrants, the FCC is asking questions about potential challenges related to systems integration and management, reliability and quality of service, as well as whether openness could present its own new security concerns.

“We will have the first assessment of the state of this technology, how our rules may be adjusted to foster its growth, and how our coordination with other federal actors—from the National Science Foundation to the Department of Defense—may stimulate its development in the marketplace,” Rosenworcel said.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition, a group focused on promoting policies to drive O-RAN was, perhaps unsurprisingly, happy with the traction.

“The Open RAN Policy Coalition believes that the adoption of open and interoperable interfaces in the Radio Access Network will encourage innovation, competition and vendor diversity in the marketplace,” said Diane Rinaldo, Executive Director, Open RAN Policy Coalition, in a statement.