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Are Open Radio Access Networks Merely a 5G Fad? Or Will They Spur Innovation and Lower Costs?

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Photo of Tareq Amin, chief technology officer of Rakuten

October 13, 2020 — Open radio access networks may be the next big trend in mobile networks across the globe, with network deployment projected to take place throughout the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Brazil this year.

Open RAN promises to lower the cost of deploying 5G networks and drive competition in the telecom space, according to panelists participating at the 2020 Open RAN Forum on Tuesday.

Don’t miss the first event in “Broadband Breakfast’s ‘A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G’ Series,” on Wednesday, October 14, 2020, at 12 Noon ET: “The Hype and the Reality of 5G.”

The technology offers a new and interoperable model for building 5G networks in comparison to the tightly vertically-integrated model typically utilized to deploy both wired and wireless networks in the United States. Open RAN networks tout their disaggregated ability for multiple vendors to offer service.

“We wanted to embrace open RAN to drive the cost of deploying networks to a level that was unheard of,” said Tareq Amin, chief technology officer of Rakuten. According to Amin, competition spurred by open RAN propelled infrastructure building costs 47 percent lower than previously.

Amin updated audiences on Rakuten’s open RAN model, currently in the early stages of being deployed in Tokyo, Japan, saying the company has “invested enormously in automation” to enable the network to be installed using cloud-based technology.

Open RAN also gaining global prominence

Open RAN networks are being implemented globally, with Telefónica, a multinational telecom carrier, employing a host of hardware and software companies to advance O-RAN within their 4G and 5G wireless network. Yet challenges remain to scaling open RAN.

The panel discussed barriers currently inhibiting open RAN growth.

“Technology-wise, deploying open RAN is not complicated,” said Amin. “Rather, it is collaboration and creates an ecosystem that connects partners, which is difficult.”

In deploying multi-vendor networks, the classic carrier-vendor relationship takes a different form, and competitors sometimes have to roll up their sleeves and collaborate to deliver innovative new configurations.

“Collaboration is necessary in changing the industry ecosystem to support open RAN,” said Aaron Burnstein, director of connectivity ecosystems at Facebook.

“You have to help your partners or you will not succeed,” furthered John Baker, senior vice president of business development at Mavenir.

Facebook is promoting open RAN

Burnstein detailed Facebook’s collaboration efforts with open RAN stakeholders. The company recently joined the Telecom Infra Project, partnering with over 500 global technology and telecom leaders to help design and build new telecom technologies. In an attempt to increase connectivity, the company has been strategically locating data centers to further the deployment of open RAN.

On the topic of open RAN, Burnstein said Facebook focuses “on building the ‘muscles’ to build connectivity and lets operators decide what is best for consumers.”

Diane Rinaldo, executive director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, called on the federal government to initiate the shift in the mobile industry.

“The government should get involved to help foster a vibrant supplier ecosystem,” said Rinaldo, saying the administration has the advantage of being able to pull the best of industry and federal employees to solve tough problems.

This summer, a bipartisan group of U.S. politicians, led by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, proposed legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission to channel at least $750 million into open RAN technologies.

The group argued the move would spur innovation in U.S. software companies and provide alternatives to Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

The Tuesday event was hosted by RCR Wireless News.

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Innovation Fund’s Global Approach May Improve O-RAN Deployment: Commenters

The $1.5 billion Innovation Fund should be used to promote global adoption, say commenters.

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Illustration about intelligent edge computing from Deloitte Insights

WASHINGTON, February 2, 2023 – A global approach to funding open radio access networks will improve its success in the United States, say commenters to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The NTIA is seeking comment on how to implement the $1.5 billion appropriated to the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund as directed by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The grant program is primarily responsible for supporting the promotion and deployment of open, interoperable, and standards-based radio access networks. 

Radio access networks provide critical technology to connect users to the mobile network over radio waves. O-RAN would create a more open ecosystem of network equipment that would otherwise be reliant on proprietary technology from a handful of companies.  

Global RAN

Commenters to the NTIA argue that in order for O-RAN to be successful, it must be global. The Administration must take a “global approach” when funding projects by awarding money to those companies that are non-U.S.-based, said mobile provider Verizon in its comments.  

To date, new entrants into the RAN market have been the center for O-RAN development, claimed wireless service provider, US Cellular. The company encouraged the NTIA to “invest in proven RAN vendors from allied nations, rather than focusing its efforts on new entrants and smaller players that lack operational expertise and experience.” 

Korean-based Samsung Electrontics added that by allowing trusted entities with a significant U.S. presence to compete for project funding and partner on those projects, the NTIA will support standardizing interoperability “evolution by advancing a diverse global market of trusted suppliers in the U.S.” 

O-RAN must be globally standardized and globally interoperable, Verizon said. Funding from the Public Wireless Innovation Fund will help the RAN ecosystem mature as it desperately needs, it added.  

Research and development

O-RAN continues to lack the maturity that is needed for commercial deployment, agreed US Cellular in its comments. The company indicated that the complexity and costliness of system integration results from there being multiple vendors that would need to integrate but are not ready for full integration. 

Additionally, interoperability with existing RAN infrastructure requires bi-lateral agreements, customized integration, and significant testing prior to deployment, the comment read. The complicated process would result in O-RAN increasing the cost of vendor and infrastructure deployment, claimed US Cellular, directly contrary to the goals of O-RAN. 

Several commenters urged the NTIA to focus funding projects on research and development rather than subsidizing commercial deployments.  

The NTIA is already fully engaged in broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas through its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, said Verizon. The Innovation Fund will better advance its goals by funding projects that accelerate the solving of remaining O-RAN technical challenges that continue to delay its deployment, it continued. 

US Cellular argued that the NTIA should “spur deployment of additional independent testing and certification lab facilities… where an independent third party can perform end to end testing, conformance, and certification.” 

The Innovation Fund should be used to focus on technology development and solving practical challenges, added wireless trade association, CTIA. Research can focus on interoperability, promotion of equipment that meets O-RAN specifications, and projects that support hardware design and energy efficiency, it said. 

Furthermore, CTIA recommended that the Administration avoid interfering in how providers design their networks to encourage providers to adopt O-RAN in an appropriate manner for their company. Allowing a flexible, risk-based approach to O-RAN deployments will “help ensure network security and stability,” it wrote. 

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CES 2023: Commissioner Starks Highlights Environmental Benefits of 5G Connectivity

Starks also said federal housing support should be linked to the Affordable Connectivity Program.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks (left) and CTA’s J. David Grossman

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2023 – Commissioner Geoffrey Starks of the Federal Communications Commission spoke at the Consumer Electronics Show Saturday, touting connectivity assistance for individuals who benefit from housing assistance as well as the potential environmental benefits of 5G.

The FCC-administered Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes monthly internet bills and one-time devices purchases for low-income Americans. Although many groups are eligible – e.g., Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees – Starks said his attention is primarily on those who rely on housing support.

“If you are having trouble putting food on your table, you should not have to worry about connectivity as well,” Starks said. “If we are helping you to get housed, we should be able to connect that house,” he added.

Environmental benefits of 5G

In addition to economic benefits, 5G-enabled technologies will offer many environmental benefits, Starks argued. He said the FCC should consider how to “ensure folks do more while using less,” particularly in the spheres of spectral and energy efficiency.

“This is going to take a whole-of-nation (approach),” Starks said. “When you talk to your local folks – mayors – state and other federal partners, making sure that they know smart cities (and) smart grid technology…making sure that we’re all unified on thinking about this is exactly where we need to go to in order to drive down the carbon emissions.”

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CES 2023: 5G Will Drive Safer Transportation

More comprehensive data-sharing is made possible by the reduced latency of 5G, CES hears.

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Photo of Aruna Anand, Durga Malladi, and Derek Peterson (left to right)

LAS VEGAS, January 5, 2023 – Panelists at the Consumer Electronics Show 2023 on Thursday touted the potential for 5G to make transportation safer by enabling information sharing between vehicles and with infrastructure.

5G is expected to expand connectivity by attaching small cell connectivity equipment on various city infrastructure, including traffic lights and bus shelters. 

More comprehensive data-sharing is made possible by the reduced latency of 5G, said Aruna Anand, president and CEO of Continental Automotive Systems Inc., referring to connectivity communications times. Anand argued that making relevant information available to multiple vehicles is key to improving safety.

“We give more information about the surroundings of the vehicle to the car to enable [it] to make better decisions,” Anand said.

Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager for cellular modems and infrastructure at chip maker Qualcomm, described a 5G-enabled “true ubiquitous data space solution” in which vehicles and smart infrastructure – e.g., traffic lights and stop signs – communicate with one another.

Asked for predictions, Malladi forecasted an increased “blend” of communications and artificial intelligence technologies. Anand said 6G is expected to emerge by 2028 and make its way to vehicle technology by 2031.

Both realized and predicted innovations in 5G-enabled technologies have driven calls for expanded spectrum access, from private and public sectors alike. The Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the respective overseers of non-federally and federally-used spectrum, in August agreed to an updated memorandum of understanding on spectrum management

Although relatively new, this agreement has already been touted by officials.

The FCC, whose spectrum auction authority Congress extended in December, made several moves last year to expand spectrum access.

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