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At FCC Forum, Panelists Label Open Radio Access Network Technology a ‘Cure-All’ to 5G Issues

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of the second panel at the FCC's forum on open RAN

September 15, 2020 — “Open Radio Access Networks can transform 5G network architecture, costs, and security,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said Monday during opening remarks at an all-day forum about this new technological buzzword O-RAN.

Pai argued that open RAN solutions would contribute to furthering American leadership in the 5G wireless standard. Open RAN is an alternative 5G technology that holds the potential to create connections between various radio access network components.

See "Advocates for New Wireless Technologies Claim Sooner Rollout, Explicate Exciting 5G Attributes," Broadband Breakfast, September 15, 2020

A contributor to the second forum panel, Mariam Sorond, chief research and development officer of CableLabs, broke down the approach of open RAN technology when she said it disaggregates networks into smaller pieces, opens up network interfaces, and decouples hardware from software.

Other panelists said the new and largely unproven technology will serve to improve network interoperability between wired and wireline infrastructures, make network slicing easier, close the digital divide, and more.

Living up to the promise of the technology?

Whether open RAN technology can deliver on all of these somewhat ambiguous promises remains unknown. At its core, open RAN promises only to create interoperable connections between various radio access network components.

Little time during the forum was dedicated to describing how the FCC would serve as a catalyst in the deployment of open RAN. That scene seemed to suggest more FCC prioritization of wireless over wireline infrastructure.

Panelists consisted of all five FCC commissioners, experts representing leading firms, and top talent from higher education. Most maintained that open RAN technology would unbundle 5G network technology and solve variety problems.

How open RAN issues play into perceptions of national security and network security

Panelists assured that open RAN would improve network security.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought up the danger of relying on Chinese suppliers, such as Huawei, for much of the equipment at the heart of American 5G networks. Pompeo said the security benefits and transparency behind open RAN technology are what excite him the most.

Soma Velayutham, general manager of telecom and 5G vertical at chipmaker Nvida, claimed that open RAN tech would make network slicing easier, which moves modern networks toward software-based automation and allows for the creation of multiple virtual networks atop a shared physical infrastructure.

Panelists further argued that open RAN tech would impact the monolithic industry of 5G, creating competition in what was previously a vertically-integrated market.

Traditionally, wireless networks rely on a closed architecture, in which a single vendor supplies all the components between the base stations and the core, yet open RAN promises to disrupt this, introducing opportunities for start-up competitors to become known names throughout the supply chain.

Open RAN tech aims to create a market that rewards innovation, yet incumbents have created an environment with incredibly high barriers to entry. Some panelists maintained there remains a lot of work to do to reestablish a “start-up culture” within the industry.

“Something will have to serve as a the catalyst,” concluded Mariam.

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