Should the FCC oversee open RAN for the sake of national security?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a ground-breaking, marathon virtual event Monday, hosting numerous stakeholders in the wireless ecosystem to discuss open radio access networks (RANs).

The main impetus for the event was to promote open RAN technologies for 5G as an alternative to RAN equipment from the Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

Currently, the choices for telecom equipment are fairly limited to the big vendors Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and Huawei. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Huawei is the largest vendor, and the company has benefitted from “the Chinese Communist Party’s subsidies.” But he said Huawei’s equipment puts U.S. national security at risk because Chinese intelligence agencies can compel Huawei to divulge sensitive information from networks.

Given the security concerns around Huawei, it was fitting that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kicked off the event. He’s been a bulldog in attacking Huawei and ZTE and in pressuring other countries to do the same.

RELATED: U.S. Secretary of State names non-Huawei telcos he considers ‘clean’

He’s gone so far as to list service providers around the world whom he considers “clean telcos” because they don’t use equipment from Huawei. His comments have garnered grimaces because the terms “clean” and “unclean” have historically and unfortunately been used in the context of racism. 

But Pompeo didn’t back off yesterday. He said, “I’ve very pleased to say that a growing wave of countries and companies have banned Huawei and chosen clean vendors. It is about 30 countries that are clean countries, and many are the world’s biggest telecommunications companies and nations. They are using technology that makes them clean telcos.”

He also threw in the fear factor, saying “The world does not want China’s communists hacking into self-driving cars or medical tools.”

Government subsidies

There were many other prominent speakers at the FCC event, and several of them had comments about open RAN and security. The conversation got particularly interesting when it touched on whether the U.S. government should subsidize open RAN innovation.

Morgan Kurk, CTO with CommScope, said in order for open RAN to be successful, governments should “put their money where their mouth is” and have “taxpayer dollars required to be part of an ORAN-compliant network, to start this cycle going.” He said it is a very expensive proposition to develop these new open RAN technologies, and “if you are going to have relatively small market share for years, that makes it challenging to have the return on investment that you need.”

Charles Mathias, associate bureau chief of the Wireless Bureau at the FCC, said Kurk’s comments were interesting “because a lot of the time at the FCC we hear people say ‘Government, keep out of our business,’ and what you have described is a little bit of tension.”

Soma Velayutham, general manager of AI and accelerated computing with Nvidia, said he thought the U.S. government should take a more active role because telecom networks are a strategic industry similar to power grids, and he also pointed out that spectrum is a national asset. “My position is if the FCC and the government would have an incentive tied to the spectrum, saying that if you want to have the spectrum, either you get credit for using ORAN or some kind of incentives,” he said.

Both Velayutham and Kurk said ORAN needs a boost from the government because it is up against entrenched traditional vendors with decades of experience.

Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said, “The nature of the telecom network is no different than the power grid.” He said governments can play an important role to ensure that the ORAN system is consistent. And he suggested that the U.S. government should create alliances with other countries that have the same vision and to create goals and timelines to drive ORAN technologies. “Governments can play a very important role aligning that timeline and driving the requirements,” Amon said.

It was a bit of role-reversal that vendors seemed enthusiastic about some form of government involvement to drive ORAN, while FCC members such as Mathias and FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly were more tentative.

O’Rielly pointed out that open RAN helps with security because it moves away from end-to-end product lines, breaking wireless networks into components. Tareq Amin, CTO with Rakuten Mobile, had already explained that with ORAN, he can pick best of breed components, and if something isn’t working or seems to present a security threat, then that component can quickly be fixed or changed out.

“Open RAN can reduce threats to overall network security if done properly and gives users the necessary confidence to transmit even the most sensitive data at any time,” said O’Rielly. But he said open RAN must be done without technological mandates from the U.S. government. “It has been proven time and time again, but bears repeating here, the FCC and other government entities lack the capabilities and requisite knowledge to impose specific network design requirements or other such directives on the private sector.”

O’Rielly added, “We must maintain vendor neutrality. That means no single company or select set of companies should be blessed or favored by the government over others. We must not pick winners and losers, especially since doing so can stymie the advancement of ideas and innovation.”