Coronavirus stalls FCC summit on 5G, vRAN

Events planned by federal agencies focused on 5G and next-generation approaches to wireless networks are now on the backburner as the country appears to be bunkering down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday postponed (PDF) its planned forum on 5G virtualized Radio Access Networks (vRAN), originally scheduled for March 26, “out of an abundance of caution” in response to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s expected to be rescheduled once “deemed safe to do so,” according the FCC.

The agency had planned to convene experts to explore policy and technical issues related to the development and cost-effective deployments of secure, interoperable, standards-based 5G network components, something FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had said vRAN could help the U.S. accomplish.

RELATED: White House and FCC plan 5G summits

“The FCC’s foremost priority at this time, given the COVID-19 pandemic, is ensuring the health and safety both of its staff and the public. For that reason, we are taking the prudent step of postponing the vRAN Forum,” said Pai in a statement. “I hope that the excellent list of participants scheduled to participate in this forum will be able to join us at a later date…”

Participants in the forum included Rakuten CTO Tareq Aim, Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon, Thierry Maupilé EVP of Strategy at Altiostar, and John Baker SVP of Mavenir, as well as experts and execs from Dish Network, Intel, IBM, Ciena, Reliance Jio, and CableLabs, among others.

RELATED: Mavenir to attend 5G Summit at White House

In addition to postponing the forum, the FCC yesterday took the step of immediately banning all visitor access to its facilities “for the foreseeable future.” According to the agency, the move came amid increases in the number of reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. and following the World Health Organization’s decision on Wednesday to classify COVID-19 as a pandemic.

The only exception is for visitors with special permission from the Office of Managing Director, but that won’t be granted unless there’s a clear operational necessity. FCC employees to have been advised to start tele-working starting today until further notice.

“We take these steps while continuing to conduct the regular and ongoing work of the FCC and encourage parties with business before the Commission to work with Commission staff to schedule necessary meetings by teleconference,” the notice stated.

The White House, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold a 5G Summit on April 1, though it remains to be seen whether that will go on as scheduled given the evolving virus situation.

Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, said during a Fox Business interview last month that the Trump White House would hold a 5G summit attended by major carriers AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, as well as companies like Intel Cisco and Qualcomm.  

RELATED: Marek’s Take: Coronavirus’ impact will be bigger than a cancelled trade show

Mavenir Systems previously confirmed to FierceWireless that its CEO Pardeep Kohli would represent the vendor at the White House Summit. U.S. vendors Airspan and Altiostar also said they would attend, but could not immediately confirm if the event is still a go.

These events were tied to advancing U.S. leadership in 5G, which has become a clear objective for the FCC, as well as lawmakers. Earlier this year U.S. senators introduced legislation (PDF) to provide more than $1 billion to invest in Western-based alternatives to Chinese telecom equipment vendors including Huawei over security concerns. While agencies continue to work, including the recent conclusion of the FCC’s third millimeter wave 5G spectrum auction, delays and disruption are likely inevitable as public health becomes top priority.

Chairman Pai on Friday announced a Keep American Connected Pledge that major broadband and phone service providers committed to for the next 60 days to help ensure Americans don’t lose connectivity during these rapidly evolving circumstances. More on that here.

The COVID-19 outbreak has already caused serious disruption across the country and globally, with some businesses, including major tech firms like Twitter and Google telling employees to work from home and major events cancelled across industries to help contain spread of the virus. In the U.S., at least five states ordered all schools closed as of Friday, including Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, and Michigan, as well as Washington, D.C., according to CNBC. Major urban school districts like Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego also closed schools. Yesterday the NCAA canceled its March Madness basketball tournament and the NBA suspended its season Wednesday after one player tested positive for coronavirus.

RELATED: WISPA cancels Dallas convention due to coronavirus

The MWC 2020 show in Barcelona, which usually attracts 100,000 attendees, was the first major hint of things to come for the mobile industry when GSMA cancelled the event last month after a flood of exhibitors bowed out over health concerns. Since then, event cancellations continued, including the IEEE Plenary Session and WISPA this week, both citing concerns over coronavirus.