Now that the FCC has banned equipment from certain Chinese vendors, including Huawei, from the networks of any carriers that receive Universal Service Fund support, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been touting the possibility of using open radio access network (O-RAN) technology to fill the void.

In pursuit of that possibility, the FCC held an all-day forum about O-RAN today, assembling a range of industry stakeholders to offer their views. Among them were two carriers that have been particularly vocal about open networking – Dish and AT&T. The carriers offered somewhat divergent views about the technology.

O-RAN and Huawei
In opening remarks at today’s forum, Pai presented his view on O-RAN.

“Looking to the next generation of wireless technology, much of the equipment at the heart of 5G networks currently comes from just a few global suppliers,” Pai noted. “Three of the most prominent are Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia, and South Korea’s Samsung, but the largest of them is the Chinese company Huawei.”

The plan to ban Huawei from USF-funded networks due to security risks and to rip and replace Huawei equipment already installed in those networks has raised concerns about what will be used to replace Huawei, as well as broader competitive concerns, both domestically and abroad.

Pai’s answer: “Technological innovation has opened up a new path to address these concerns. That technology is the subject of today’s forum: Open Radio Access Networks, or Open RANs.”

According to Pai, “Open RANs could transform 5G network architecture, costs, and security.”

As he explained, “Traditionally, wireless networks rely on a closed architecture in which a single vendor supplies many or all the components between network base stations and the core. But Open RANs can fundamentally disrupt this marketplace.”

Possible benefits, he said, could include an increase in the number of suppliers, as well as more cost-effective solutions.

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who was also on hand for today’s event, went so far as to say that companies required to rip and replace Huawei equipment should be required to consider O-RAN.

Is O-RAN Ready?
A key question is whether O-RAN is ready for large-scale deployment.

Dish, which is building a 5G network from scratch, largely seems to believe that O-RAN is ready. The company has made several announcements about O-RAN plans and at today’s forum, Stephen Bye — Dish Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer of the company’s wireless business – noted that O-RAN is one of several key technologies that will underlie the company’s 5G network, along with a cloud-native approach.

On a panel about “Lessons from the Field,” Bye noted that an O-RAN network is easier to monitor in comparison with other options and that the O-RAN approach has opened up a broader talent pool for work on the networks. With the traditional network hardware approach, each manufacturer had its own certification program, but that’s not true of O-RAN, enabling Dish to “tap into a broader skill set,” Bye said.

Bye is so confident in Dish’s O-RAN deployment plans that he sees Dish being “in a position to accelerate the deployment of this technology.” The company, he said, “will bring the whole system along.”

AT&T, in general, has been a big backer of software-based open source networking. But at today’s forum, Laurie Bigler — Assistant Vice President and Member of the Tech Staff for Access Analytics and Systems at AT&T Labs Research – was considerably more cautious about O-RAN than Bye was.

AT&T, she said, is committed to ensuring “reliability, integrity and performance” for customers and as the company introduces O-RAN, “a key consideration” will be whether the technology can support the same level of performance, she said.

She noted that “having a specification alone doesn’t ensure interoperability or performance” and that “you don’t find gaps until you’re trying to integrate two vendors.”

Standards groups are recognizing and addressing this, she said, but there is still more work to be done there and in other areas, including fronthaul interfaces. As these issues are resolved, she said AT&T is pursuing a “gradual implementation” of O-RAN technology.

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