Dish, Open RAN coalition cheer Senate tech bill passage

Dish Network and the Open RAN Policy Coalition are cheering bipartisan U.S. Senate passage of tech-focused legislation that includes provisions to fund technology development with an eye on open architectures.

The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, approved in the Senate Tuesday, is a $250 billion bill that also aims to boost U.S. chipmaking and ensure technological competitiveness against China, among other elements.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition, which counts a broad member base including U.S. operators AT&T, Verizon and U.S. Cellular as members, along with Dish, was pleased with the traction.

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“The Open RAN Policy Coalition applauds the U.S. Senate for its passage of the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), legislation that recognizes the importance of Open RAN in establishing supply chain resiliency and supporting innovation. 5G supply chain security has implications not only for telecom policy, but also for economic policy and economic security,” said Open RAN Policy Coalition Executive Director Diane Rinaldo in a statement.

A provision calls for emergency supplemental appropriations to implement the USA Telecommunications Act, spearheaded by Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio and authorized in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including $1.5 billion for a Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund.

That would be managed by the NTIA, with input from NIST, DHS and IARPA, among others.  According to a summary (PDF) of the bill, it would “spur movement towards open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies, funding innovative, ‘leap-ahead’ technologies in the U.S. mobile broadband market.”

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The provision also calls for a $500 million joint semiconductor and Open RAN multilateral program, which along with the Innovation Fund “will help bolster advanced wireless networks and future-proof our telecommunications systems,” Rinaldo continued.

The USA Telecom Act aims to bolster domestic vendors, to compete with China’s Huawei and ZTE.

Dish EVP of External and Legislative Affairs Jeff Blum thanked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Todd Young for sponsoring the legislation and urged swift passage in the House.

“This important legislation will support U.S. ingenuity for years to come, including new wireless network technologies that DISH is eager to bring to life for the American people. The critical funding to promote and deploy Open RAN innovation from Senator Warner and Senator Rubio’s USA Telecommunications Act will spur American job creation, diversify the telecom equipment supply chain, enhance network security and boost our nation’s efforts to lead the global race to 5G (and beyond),” Blum stated.

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Dish is working to become a facilities-based carrier in the U.S., with a greenfield cloud-native 5G network build that uses open radio access network (open RAN) architecture.

Another part of the legislation focused on the Endless Frontier Act would authorize $50 million to NTIA “to create a testbed to develop open network architecture technologies and applications and increase U.S. participation in international standards-setting bodies.”

Importantly, "open" appears to be used broadly in terms of open network architecture, rather than specifically open interfaces as defined by the O-RAN Alliance – although those could also apply, according to wireless industry expert Roger Entner, founder and principal of Recon Analytics.

And that is a good thing, he said. 

“There are many different flavors of open and even different flavors of open RAN,” Entner told Fierce, so less specificity regarding "open" gives the government a lot of leeway in what they want to fund.

“Which is important when it comes to innovation,” he said. “Innovation is not ordained like the past.”

Even with open RAN, software that comes from U.S. companies like Altiostar, Mavenir, or Parallel Wireless (newer entrants in the open RAN space) is still proprietary, he noted, but works together on an O-RAN standard.

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And while the funding can help smaller and newer players, it doesn’t mean bad news for the large established vendors like Ericsson and Nokia. Instead, Entner thinks it gives more opportunities to both sides.

“It opens up things a lot more, but it does not disadvantage the Ericsson’s, Nokia’s,” he said.

Nokia is a member of the Open RAN policy coalition, joining in May 2020.

And major operators such as AT&T, a founding O-RAN Alliance member and part of the policy coalition, have been pushing for open architectures with plans to deploy over time.