Funds Needed for O-RAN Success, Experts Tell Congress

Republicans and Democrats agreed during a House subcommittee hearing that securing America’s communications networks is vital. They’re hoping O-RAN can lower the barriers to entry for hardware and software suppliers, to expand the supply chain and ensure vendors can provide trusted network equipment.

Doris Matsui (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said the U.S. has been experiencing “supply chain shortages and shifting geopolitics” as NTIA is trying to get BEAD money out the door. “Rather than funding limited builds that are likely to have minimal impact, we’re looking for new, open market solutions.” The country, she added, “needs a true multi-vendor solution. We need to be free from untrusted suppliers like Huawei.”  

Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), chair of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, said: “America’s ability to win the future requires strong communications networks. 5G is already making networks faster. 6G is still being developed, but promises to do even more. We need to ensure [networks] are safe and secure.”

“It’s important that O-RAN will increase competition in the vendor marketplace and bring lower costs to consumers,” said Rodgers during the Wednesday afternoon hearing. “We need technology that is less expensive, so operators are no longer forced to rely on a single vendor, allowing them to mix and match with more trusted suppliers offering trusted alternatives.”

O-RAN vendor Mavenir (NYSE: MVNR) SVP Ecosystem Business Development John Baker told lawmakers the company “is a trusted vendor” to more than 250 mobile operators worldwide. That includes DISH’s O-RAN technology. “O-RAN is a proven solution, an open process is needed to prevent vendor lock in 5G and beyond.”

Baker described O-RAN “as a means of communication between elements of the radio access networks, making it easier for operators to change different components.” He said a certification process is needed and the U.S. government should work with our country’s allies “to encourage open adoption. Further investments and collaboration will ensure O-RAN’s success.”

EchoStar (NASDAQ: SATS) lobbyist Jeff Blum said DISH is the first company to deploy a cloud native O-RAN system. “O-RAN helped us to build a new wireless [system] from the ground up and leapfrog over opponents. Most companies are using end-to-end gear from one vendor – a closed system. We constructed a modern software-based O-RAN network.” He said Apple and Samsung have validated its capabilities.

Open RAN Policy Coalition Executive Director Diane Rinaldo said the “expense gap” hasn’t been closed yet for operators. She said more competition among vendors would help that.

All the witnesses urged lawmakers to provide more money for NTIA’s Wireless Innovation Fund. Rinaldo noted that “of the $1.5 billion dollars allocated, only six percent has been distributed: four percent to businesses and only 0.01 percent to small businesses.”

For the money “to be impactful, it needs to go out in the next couple of years,” said Rinaldo. “If we let the money go for the next 10 years, this is a 7G conversation. We don’t want that.”

“The lab will be the focus,” of the fund, and ready in about six months, said Blum. He was referring to NTIA’s recent $50 million grant to DISH for the center, Inside Towers reported. “The lab will take all of their inventions and help them commercialize their hardware and software, to help spur further deployments of O-RAN around the world.”

Concerning the Rip & Replace reimbursement funding, Baker said “it’s like for like. So, we’re actually having to replace 4G equipment instead of 5G. The language should be changed to 5G.”

Rinaldo emphasized the need to fully fund Rip & Replace to make up the $3 billion shortfall. “We need to get Rip & Replace done. If we can’t get the money, let’s move forward with a Plan B.”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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