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Finding Scale

NTIA Putting Finishing Touches on Federal ORAN Fund

NTIA will release in “coming weeks” the first notice of funding for the $1.5 billion federal fund to spur the growth of open radio access networks, said Amanda Toman, new lead of NTIA’s Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund, Thursday at the Winnik Forum at Hogan Lovells. Under the Chips and Science Act, which created the fund, NTIA is required to make initial grants by Aug. 8, she noted.

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ORAN offers “a real opportunity to reestablish the U.S. industrial base as well as really invigorate the market space globally,” Toman said. NTIA is looking at how the fund can be used to “drive innovation” and interoperability, with a focus on standards. “At the end of the day, the carriers need to buy into what these open architecture solutions are going to look like and how they’re going to operate,” she said.

NTIA is evaluating comments made during a January listening session (see 2301240059) and directly to the agency, Toman said. Most recognize the need for specifications and making ORAN “plug and play,” she said. NTIA is working with industry on whether 3rd Generation Partnership Project, Europe’s O-RAN Alliance or other standards should be used, she said: “Can we leverage what’s there and build something on top of that?”

Dell’Oro Group recently ranked Samsung as the top global provider of ORAN equipment, said John Godfrey, Samsung Electronics America senior vice president-public policy, who also spoke at the summit. But ORAN is still less than 10% of the RAN market, he said: “ORAN is definitely growing. It’s having its moment and it’s the unquestionable direction that industry is going … driven by the demands of the carriers.”

Samsung has delivered more than 24,000 radios to Dish Wireless for its ORAN network this year and provided ORAN-compliant radios for 10,000 Verizon cellsites, Godfrey said. The first step many carriers are taking into “the full-blown open RAN world” is buying ORAN-compliant gear from a single provider, he said.

Nokia doesn’t see itself as only a vendor of traditional RAN equipment, said Grace Koh, vice president-legislative affairs. ORAN “is coming -- it is the wave of the next generation of networks, and it is starting to take root now,” she said. If Nokia doesn’t get involved it’s “at risk,” she said.

All the innovations in ORAN were “triggered” by the carriers, said Mariam Sorond, chief technology officer of VMware’s Service Provider and Edge business. “That is the most amazing thing about open RAN to me,” she said.

Costs are tied to scale “and there’s a big challenge in the open RAN industry about scale,” said John Baker, Mavenir senior vice president-ecosystem business development. “The savings are there,” he said. “Different methods of deployment are there,” he said. ORAN has been a success, he said: “The prime reason for open RAN coming in the first place was the operators wanted more suppliers and supplier diversity. … I’ve never seen so much innovation coming out of new companies.” Today, we have five additional end-to-end system suppliers in the market, on top of the traditional vendors, he said. When large operators get onboard that will “start to drive the economies of scale to get chips and the technology that’s required at competitive process,” he said.

The executives said they agreed with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., that the innovation fund should be spent to spur deployment (see 2303230072). “The 1.5 billion will go a long way, it won’t build a nationwide network,” Godfrey said: The money shouldn’t be used “just as a science experiment. We’re way past the science experiment phase.” Industry needs help with integration to make it “smoother and easier,” he said.

This is not a science exercise anymore -- the train has left the station,” Baker said. “It’s all about scaling and learning how to scale.” The U.S. doesn’t have a generic radio manufacturing facility anymore or generic radio designers and needs to rebuild, he said.