FCC chair calls for inquiry into open RAN opportunities

FCC chair calls for inquiry into open RAN opportunities

11 March 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chair of the US telecoms regulator, is starting an inquiry next week on whether to develop a policy on open radio access networks (open RAN).

She also wants to work with what she called “like-minded nations”, such as Germany, Japan and the UK, she said in a debate organised by the Open RAN Policy Coalition.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it wants its five members to seek comment on the current status of open RAN development and deployment in American networks and abroad. It asks about the role of established large manufacturers and of new entrants in setting standards for this new network architecture. 

The task is urgent, said Rosenworcel (pictured), whom US president Joe Biden named as acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), because of “an incredible concentration in equipment manufacturing”.

Rosenworcel pointed to the fact that there were 13 equipment vendors at the start of the millennium and seven when 4G started — a decade ago.

Many have expressed concern that, apart from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE, there are now two big Western vendors, Ericsson and Nokia. “We don’t have any US-based equipment manufacturers,” she said. “We have incredible concerns about the network vulnerabilities,” and open RAN “could be the ticket” to let more companies into the market. The

A notice of inquiry (NoI) is “the first place” to begin to examine the strategy, said Rosenworcel. She wants “a fact-based record”. She added: “There are concerns about security as we move into the 5G future, and concerns about the lack of competition.”

She wants to bring in other US government units, including the National Science Foundation, which has innovation zones in New York and Salt Lake City, the Department of Defense, which has allocated US$600 million on military applications of 5G, and Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is also looking at 5G applications.

Darpa was the agency that helped to develop the internet protocol (IP), as used in its own networks half a century ago.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition followed Rosenworcel’s presentation with a discussion on when open RAN is now. Diane Rinaldo, executive director of the Policy Coalition, said that operators “want more diversity, they want local champions”. At the moment companies making RAN equipment can sell only to the major vendors. With open RAN, “they would be able to sell to carriers”.

She said that “all the major carriers around the world” are trying open RAN technology. It is, she said, a good time to develop international cooperation because the Biden administration has seen “the need to build back relationships” with other countries.

At first the Policy Coalition has only US members, said Rinaldo, but now it has international members. “We are not US-centric. We are not tied to the US government.” But she side-stepped a question from Capacity about whether the Policy Coalition would accept members from China or Hong Kong.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition now has 60 members, including non-US companies such as Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, NTT, Rakuten Mobile, Reliance Jio, Samsung and Vodafone.

The open RAN enquiry will take place at the FCC on 17 March. “We expect a five-to-zero approach” when the commissioners vote, said Rinaldo.