A new lobby group has emerged in the US, known as the Open RAN Policy Coalition, with a mission to guide policy making and encourage the promotion of the OpenRAN movement.
OpenRAN is of course gathering momentum across numerous different segments of the telecoms industry, though it is still in its embryonic days. It will be years before OpenRAN can materially challenge the status quo in the network infrastructure ecosystem, but assistive government policy and a generous regulatory environment could certainly accelerate this roadmap.
“As evidenced by the current global pandemic, vendor choice and flexibility in next-generation network deployments are necessary from a security and performance standpoint,” said Diane Rinaldo, Executive Director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, though we aren’t too sure how the two are related.
“By promoting policies that standardize and develop open interfaces, we can ensure interoperability and security across different players and potentially lower the barrier to entry for new innovators.”
As a technology set, OpenRAN disaggregates radio, hardware and software components of telecoms networks. The objective is to offer the opportunity for telcos to build networks through a modular design, selecting each component on its own merit as opposed to proprietary technologies which bundle everything together and potentially create vendor lock-in situations.
Theoretically, networks should be cheaper to deploy as there would be greater diversity in the supplier ecosystem with specialists emerging in each segment.
The purpose of this group is as most would expect; to influence government policy for OpenRAN technologies and to encourage enforced diversity in telecoms supply chains. The group will push for policies which are more overtly in support of open and interoperable wireless technologies, funding R&D, lower barriers for 5G deployment and use government procurement to support vendor diversity.
Much of what is being said is hardly different from the corporate and meaningless jargon which litters the industry thanks to the influence of PR agencies who have little more than surface knowledge, but some of the policy objectives are quite interesting:
- Signal government support for open and interoperable solutions: Perhaps this is suggesting the group will push governments to pick a camp and actively promote open technologies
- Use government procurement to support vendor diversity: Should the lobby be successful, maybe there will be regulatory requirements to incorporate open technologies into any network which receives public funds
- Avoid heavy-handed or prescriptive solutions: Could these mean an end to proprietary technologies through legislation?
For some, this might seem like a worrying development (Ericsson, Nokia or Huawei are hardly going to be thrilled) but the move has been welcomed by others in the industry.
“The launch of the Open RAN Policy Coalition shows the momentum building behind a more competitive, innovative, technology ecosystem,” said Attilio Zani, Executive Director of the Telecom Infra Project.
“At the heart of TIP’s work is the development and deployment of open, disaggregated, standards-based solutions – that are developed in conjunction with the operators. This, together with a supportive policy environment that allows new technology to flourish, will create greater opportunities for new entrants and a more diverse supply chain that will ultimately transform the industry to deliver the high-quality connectivity that the world needs – now and in the decades to come.”
The emergence of a formal lobby group is another step towards the breakthrough of Open RAN technologies, though momentum is already gathering very quickly in the US.
In protest against China emerging as the powerhouse of the 5G era, the US Government has been quick to jump on the Open RAN bandwagon. This preference serves two purposes for the US Government; firstly, it dilutes the influence Chinese infrastructure vendors have on the industry, and secondly, it stimulates the creation of US infrastructure companies. There aren’t many US names in the RAN game currently.
Earlier this year, a bill was introduced to Congress to provide up to $1 billion of federal funds to create Western-based alternatives to Chinese equipment providers Huawei and ZTE.
“Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G, while US and Western companies and workers lose out on market share and jobs,” said Senator Mark Warner, a particularly vocal critic of China.
“Widespread adoption of 5G technology has the potential to unleash sweeping effects for the future of internet-connected devices, individual data security, and national security. It is imperative that Congress address the complex security and competitiveness challenges that Chinese-directed telecommunication companies pose.”
Aside from the government support, it is worth bearing in mind the OpenRAN movement has already some weighty support from the operator community.
“The lack of supplier diversity for network equipment lies at the heart of the concerns over the resilience and security of critical national infrastructure,” said Vodafone Group CTO Johan Wibergh.
“Vodafone is focused on expanding our supply chain options through engaging with open RAN vendors and encouraging newer network providers, to ensure the optimal balance across suppliers. Our industry leading trials of open RAN have underlined that this is the most promising route to advance niche suppliers, to supplement the large vendors, especially for radio equipment and software.”
Vodafone has launched a number of OpenRAN initiatives in India, Africa and India, and it is not alone. O2 is exploring how OpenRAN can aid rural network deployment in the UK, Etisalat has incorporated the technology in the Middle East, while MTN is deploying 5,000 OpenRAN sites across Africa. Although the technology was initially positioned as a benefit for the developing markets thanks to the lower cost of network deployment, it is quickly being embraced by all telcos.
OpenRAN technologies are not a market-ready alternative for traditional RAN equipment in most circumstances now, though there is swift progress being made. With the likes of Rakuten and Dish championing open networks, the status quo is beginning to shift, which will only be accelerated with political support. The formation of this lobby group to compound existing support in the US political aisles is a very interesting development.
Founding members of Open RAN Policy Coalition:
Airspan, Altiostar, AWS, AT&T, Cisco, CommScope, Dell, Dish Network, Facebook, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, Intel, Juniper Networks, Mavenir, Microsoft, NEC Corporation, NewEdge Signal Solutions, NTT, Oracle, Parallel Wireless, Qualcomm, Rakuten, Samsung Electronics America, Telefónica, US Ignite, Verizon, VMWare, Vodafone, World Wide Technology, and XCOM-Labs.