However, doing this right means putting security first. It means recognizing that this new connectivity introduces new vulnerabilities. To date, the FCC has focused its efforts in this area on limiting the deployment of insecure wireless technology by restricting the use of network equipment from Chinese companies. We have encouraged our allies around the globe to do the same. Nevertheless, we should not be lulled into a false sense of security by flashy and well-promoted decisions about hardware and Administration headlines about Huawei or ZTE.
That is because the 5G cybersecurity challenge is much bigger than simply dealing with a few Chinese companies. Restrictions on Huawei and ZTE are a minor fix for a much larger problem. Although we can ban a few specific products, services or companies, no country can isolate itself completely when we are connected worldwide. In addition, our national ambitions are far too great to be defined only in relation to a single country. We must focus now on our competitiveness, on strengthening our alliances around the world, and on reasserting our values by building a new market for 5G equipment. That is how we will restore American leadership and secure 5G.
Ultimately, this is what the open RAN conversation is about. It is about making the market for 5G equipment both more competitive and more secure. At Mobile World Congress Americas last year, I explained that if we can unlock the RAN and diversify the equipment in this part of our networks, we could increase security and push the market for equipment to where the United States is strongest — in software and semiconductors. That means we can increase vendor diversity and in the process increase competition and resiliency. Moreover, we will benefit from software-centric innovation in radio access networks and faster upgrade cycles than with traditional hardware. I have since testified about this idea before four different congressional committees. Thus, I can say with authority momentum is building.
Nevertheless, we have more work to do, because not everyone is convinced. Earlier this year, the attorney general of the United States called open RAN “just pie in the sky.” However, one company has already made it into the history books as the first to launch an open RAN network in Japan. In addition, open RAN hardware and software are projected to reach 10 percent of the total market during the next few years.
If we want to lead in the development of open RAN, we need to take action now to help build this movement from the ground up.
First, we need investment in research and development from both the government and the private sector. A bipartisan bill in Congress, the USA Telecommunications Act, would have the FCC provide $750 million to accelerate the development of open RAN in the United States. This is a good idea.
Second, we need to launch an open RAN testbed that brings together operators, vendors, vertical interests and government agencies. That is something we can do right here at the FCC. Even better, we can build this into our ongoing work with the National Science Foundation to authorize citywide 5G testbeds in New York and Salt Lake City.
Third, we need to build scale economies for open RAN technologies. This happens when we coordinate with other agencies at home and increase participation in international standards setting organizations abroad to help ensure no single vendor dominates networks. As we move forward with plans to remove insecure equipment that is already in our networks, we should consider incentives for replacing that equipment with open RAN architectures. We also need to build incentives for producing the next-generation chips that open RAN technologies will require — and that includes research into the use of gallium nitride chips, because early research shows it could be more efficient than traditional silicon chips for 5G technologies.
Jessica Rosenworcel is an FCC commissioner. Edited for length and style, this article comes from her remarks at the FCC’s Forum on 5G Open Radio Access Networks on Sept. 14, 2020.