Smaller wireless operators typically don’t drive technology development, and while they’re ripping out their Huawei gear, it might not be the best time for them to roll out new virtualized systems that haven’t been thoroughly vetted.
That message played out during testimony at the “5G Supply Chain Security: Threats and Solutions” hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday. Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies were represented on the witness panel.
Referring to a Senate bill that proposes to restrict money for equipment replacement on the condition of O-RAN Alliance certification within seven years, Nokia’s CTO for the Americas, Mike Murphy said the reality is that fully compliant open interfaces as specified by the O-RAN Alliance have not been deployed anywhere in the world yet.
“Fully compliant O-RAN products are few and immature” and putting the burden on rural carriers—the least capable of being early adopters—is “perhaps unreasonable and thus, a technology neutral approach might be more appropriate,” he said.
The bipartisan Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act would provide over $1 billion to encourage U.S. competition with Huawei and use auction proceeds to create an O-RAN R&D fund. Big carriers like AT&T and Verizon, which have had extensive network virtualization efforts underway for years, have come out in support of the act. In fact, they submitted a letter to that very effect to Senate committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
In the bill, the term “O-RAN” refers to the open RAN approach to standardization adopted by the O-RAN Alliance, Telecom Infra Project or 3GPP, or any similar set of open standards for multi-vendor network equipment interoperability. In Murphy’s written testimony, he referenced efforts to move to open interfaces as specified by the O-RAN Alliance, described as the most relevant one in this context.
“In fact, it is uncertain whether the most critical interface specified by O-RAN will be deployed widely, as alternatives are already being proposed by several contributing, significant members,” he said. “Likewise, virtualization, an orthogonal technology to O-RAN, that can also facilitate open systems, has only been deployed by one carrier globally in a 5G Radio Access Network. In short, there is limited maturity in both O-RAN and Radio Access Network virtualization.”
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CCA President and CEO Steve Berry had a similar message in his testimony. “O-RAN presents exciting new opportunities, with the potential to disaggregate functionality to increase efficiency and reduce costs. I encourage further research and development to explore virtualized solutions,” he said. “O-RAN may provide opportunities to increase security by breaking down the network stack and allowing multiple vendors to provide off-the-shelf components and services that when working together appropriately provide unified services.”
Noting that Dish Network, a CCA member, has announced plans to start deploying its standalone O-RAN 5G network this year in the U.S., he said O-RAN can provide opportunities for new network designs that do not need to be integrated with legacy networks.
However, “policymakers should not mandate which technologies are used in wireless networks, but instead should encourage research into new, secure technologies to enhance customer choice, innovation, and cost savings,” he added. “For carriers with existing network infrastructure, additional research may facilitate increased O-RAN deployment as well, and it is important that all network operators are positioned to manage additional steps for interoperability across multiple vendors.”
In its testimony, Intel, as one might expect, emphasized the role of virtualization in the transition to 5G. Open RAN, such as the work within the Open RAN Alliance, is one version of a virtual RAN, said Asha Keddy, general manager, Next Generation and Standards at Intel. Intel’s product lines support various approaches, from the more traditional telecom manufacturers such as Ericsson and Nokia, to the newer entrants like Altiostar and Mavenir.
A lot of attention has been focused on how U.S.-based companies can get into the 5G action as China’s Huawei has been deemed a national security threat. The White House is holding a 5G Summit in April where big U.S. carriers and traditional vendors are expected to attend—and both Mavenir and Altiostar have confirmed they will be represented there.