4 prominent wireless leaders testify about open RAN at Congressional hearing

It seems like a couple of years have passed since the U.S. Congress focused on open radio access networks (open RAN). Perhaps it’s been too busy worrying about dress codes and which members are vaping and groping. But yesterday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Bob Latta (R-OH) held a hearing about open RAN.
In a statement prior to the hearing Rodgers and Latta said, “In order to win the future, we must ensure networks are secure and that America — not communist China — is leading the innovation, developing the technology, and deploying it. Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN), in particular, are a key part of achieving this goal.”

Several prominent people from the telecommunications industry testified at the hearing and filed written comments in advance.

John Baker, Mavenir

John Baker, senior vice president of Ecosystem Business Development at Mavenir noted that for decades, “a few, foreign-headquartered companies” — in which he was referring to Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei — “controlled the international standard setting body for mobile technologies known as 3GPP and developed closed interface specifications, supporting traditional, proprietary solutions.”

He said that thankfully today nearly 300 entities – operators, suppliers, U.S. government agencies, and academics – participate in the O-RAN Alliance and work together on open and interoperable specifications.

But he sounded the alarm bell that history could repeat itself if powerful suppliers and carriers within the O-RAN Alliance hijack its specifications work. He told the committee that the U.S. government should work with allied governments to support a certification body to ensure that networks are indeed compliant with O-RAN Alliance specifications.

Jeff Blum, Dish

Jeff Blum, executive vice president of External & Government Affairs at EchoStar Corporation, which now owns Dish Networks, also testified. He talked about Dish’s endeavor to build the nation’s first greenfield wireless network, using open RAN technology.

Blum said, “In 2019, Dish did not have a single operational 5G cell site. Today, we have over 20,000 sites that cover more than 73% of the U.S. population. Our network has been certified by the major cellular device makers (Apple, Samsung, and Motorola). We brought open RAN to scale and now have the world’s largest open RAN deployment.”

He also noted that Dish has partnered with the Department of Defense to test and validate open RAN technology at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington State. And Dish has also received a $50 million grant from the NTIA Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund to establish an open RAN testing center in Dish’s Cheyenne, Wyoming facility.

Blum urged the U.S. government to propel open RAN as part of its policy to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from the country’s networks. “Having small rural carriers deploy open RAN would benefit U.S. wireless leadership and American consumers,” he said.

Diane Rinaldo, the Open RAN Policy Coalition

Diane Rinaldo, executive director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, told the committee that it was great the Wireless Innovation Fund includes grant programs to catalyze open RAN. But of the $1.5 billion allocated for open RAN, only 6% has been distributed. “To truly drive innovation, it is essential that these funds are fully deployed within the next two years,” said Rinaldo.

She compared the U.S.’s slow progress on open RAN to China’s Digital Silk Road program, which has multiple countries participating. And she claimed this program has the strategic intent of vendor lock-in and has the full financial backing of the Chinese government.

“While open RAN reduces costs in hardware and software and creates the possibility to break vendor lock-in, these heavy foreign investments tip the scales more than those cost savings can ever compete with,” said Rinaldo.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition is requesting some measures for trusted suppliers to have more flexibility in financing wireless telecommunications projects around the globe, especially those promoting open RAN, in order to “level the playing field” with Chinese telecom vendors.

Kristian Toivo, TIP

Finally, Kristian Toivo, executive director of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), said that open RAN involves multiple different vendors, and it can be difficult for carriers to integrate all the parts and pieces into a carrier-grade RAN system, even if the individual components are interoperable. 

“For open RAN to flourish, we must establish a trusted, neutral, non-profit, and global systems-level certification regime,” said Toivo. And he implied that TIP might be the perfect entity to do this and that the NTIA’s Wireless Innovation Fund grants could fund it.