The authoritative news source for communications regulation
Fund Taking Shape

ORAN Growing but Not as Quickly as Some Hoped, NTIA Told

Barriers remain to wide-scale launch of open radio access networks, said NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson and other speakers at an NTIA listening session Tuesday as the agency seeks advice on a $1.5 billion federal fund to spur ORAN. The fund was part of the $54.2 billion Chips and Science Act signed into law in August (see 2208090062). NTIA is also taking written comments, due Friday in docket NTIA-2022-0003.

Start A Trial

Specifications are still being developed and more research and testing is needed, Davidson said. “The whole idea is that” the fund “will help us overcome these barriers and advance open, interoperable and standard-based network adoption.” NTIA sees the fund as supporting R&D, potentially trials, pilots and lab testing, he said. “It will help us gather valuable data on open RAN successes,” he said.

The lack of vendor diversity and competition reduces supply chain resilience and security,” Davidson said: “It contributes to higher prices. It makes it challenging for new, innovative companies to break into the market.”

Providers will invest only in technology that will “make money, save money or reduce operating risks,” said Dennis Hoffman, Dell Technologies senior vice president-telecom systems business. “ORAN is where it is today for a reason -- it doesn’t yet do any of those things.” ORAN offers promise, but it “costs more, doesn’t clearly drive revenue and presents significant adoption risks,” he said.

AT&T is a strong proponent of ORAN, but opening networks will take time since customers rely on the carrier to always provide reliable connections, said Chris Boyer, vice president-global security and technology policy. ORAN depends on the ability to resolve “a myriad of issues, which are key to deployment at scale,” he said. “We’re very optimistic that a lot of challenges that we’re seeing today will be resolved over time” and the fund could help shorten timeframes, he said.

Interoperability remains an issue “to ensure that all the piece parts are really open and interchangeable,” Boyer said. Certified network components aren’t available, which drives up costs and the time to market, he said. Big carriers require equipment that “can scale and support millions of subscribers,” he said: “While we have seen some open RAN deployments there is a need for data on the experiences of different operators in terms of performance at scale, so operators can make informed decisions.”

More than half of cable companies offer mobile wireless, and CableLabs spends lots of time looking at mobility issues, said David Debrecht, vice president-wireless technologies. The ORAN “vendor ecosystem is developing well, but it’s not mature,” he said. “There needs to be more investment and more acceleration and more work to bring it up to speed,” he said.

Overall, ORAN is making “great progress,” but “it’s not quite ready for prime time” for large-scale deployments, Debrecht said. “We need to get more deployments out there and see what the real performance is,” he said: Many ORAN vendors are “struggling because they’re very small -- they don’t have billions of dollars to spend. … We need more direction on what the requirements are and how to actually get more investment,” he said.

Problems with the global supply chain slowed progress on ORAN, warned John Baker, Mavenir senior vice president-ecosystem business development. “Like many other industries, the wireless supply chain has been impacted by delays and corresponding price increases, particularly for the RAN market,” he said. Large trials, and more adoption of ORAN by the largest carriers, would spur advancement, he said.

ORAN “means open, interoperable, standards-based radio networks,” Baker said: “It is not open RAN if networks don’t demonstrate interoperability. Such a network is still proprietary and closed except for the exclusive participants.”