Next-generation 5G wireless networks will be embedded in almost every aspect of our society and economy — from businesses to homes, hospitals to transportation networks, manufacturing to the power grid.
Over the past few years, the FCC has aggressively executed our 5G FAST plan to secure American’s leadership in 5G. This strategy features three key parts: freeing up commercial radio-frequency spectrum, promoting wireless infrastructure and encouraging fiber deployment.
This strategy has yielded significant results. For example, we have completed multiple spectrum auctions that have repurposed huge swaths of spectrum for 5G. Also, we have seen record-breaking capital investments in infrastructure essential for next-generation networks.
However, our focus is not limited to promoting networks that are strong. We also are committed to making sure that they are secure.
For years, U.S. government officials have expressed concern about the national security threats posed by certain foreign communications equipment providers. To address this concern, we have aimed to protect the integrity of the communications supply chain — that is, the process by which products and services are manufactured, distributed, sold and, ultimately, integrated into our communications networks.
Specifically, the FCC has prohibited the use of money from our Universal Service Fund to purchase or obtain any equipment or services produced or provided by companies that the Commission determines pose a national security threat, namely Huawei and ZTE. We also initiated a process to identify and catalog insecure equipment used in USF-funded communications networks so that we can, hopefully, implement a program to remove and replace it once Congress appropriates funds for this purpose.
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. 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.
Carriers building out 5G networks rightfully worry that Huawei equipment could expose them to security risks. Huawei’s market power, aided by generous subsidies from the Chinese Communist Party, often might seem to make that company the cheapest and thus best option for network equipment. Nevertheless, the Chinese National Intelligence Law requires companies like Huawei to cooperate with, and keep secret, State intelligence work. The law also creates opportunities for Chinese intelligence agencies to compel access to an organization’s facilities, including communications equipment, in certain cases. In short, many are recognizing that you get what you pay for, and that the long-term costs of using insecure equipment are most likely to outweigh any short-term savings.
In addition to these security issues, carriers may be concerned by a relatively consolidated marketplace. Some have told me, both here and abroad, that vendor diversity is useful in terms of price competition, avoiding the lock-in problem and ensuring a backup supplier, among other things.
Technological innovation has opened up a new path to address these concerns. That technology is Open Radio Access Networks, or Open RANs.
Open RANs could transform 5G network architecture, costs, and security.
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. We could see an exponential growth in the number and diversity of suppliers. We could see more cost-effective solutions. Also, critically, we could see the keys to security in the hands of network operators, as opposed to a Chinese vendor. All this may explain why some telecom companies are beginning to develop and deploy open, interoperable, standards-based and virtualized radio access networks.
As an added bonus, many of the leading firms in the Open RAN space are based in the United States or in countries generally aligned with our vision of 5G security.
How this marketplace will evolve is difficult to predict with certainty. However, here is what I can say with confidence: Innovation and competition make for a stronger, healthier telecom ecosystem. That is why so many are excited about Open RAN’s potential.
The FCC wants to encourage research and development into innovative network solutions. One way to do that is by convening the top experts in the field to discuss the benefits of Open RAN, the challenges of implementing it and the lessons learned from deployments thus far — as we have done by convening our Forum on 5G Open Radio Access Networks on Sept. 14, 2020.
Ajit Pai is chairman of the FCC. Edited for length and style, this article comes from his remarks at the FCC’s Forum on 5G Open Radio Access Networks on Sept. 14, 2020.