The 5G wireless network has a way to go before reaching the lofty potential its purveyors promised. Now the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is part of the Commerce Department, has a 5G research competition running and is seeking interoperable network equipment. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with NTIA Director April Delaney.
Tom Temin All right. Well, let’s talk about this contest that you’re doing. You have some companies that are in the midst of this 2023 5G challenge. Tell us about the challenge and what you’re trying to do with it.
April Delaney Well, first of all, I can say that the Department of Commerce and Secretary Raimondo (D-R.I.) have really prioritized accelerating open wireless networks to increase U.S. innovation and competitiveness and really secure a wireless network chain. And so we’re hosting a competition just really accelerate the adoption and the development of what we call Open interoperable secure multi-vendor 5G ecosystem. We call it Open Ran. So what this challenge will do is we’re trying to spurring more competition in a diverse supply chain. We’re trying to bring together, through our ITS Division, a competition. This 5G challenge is a two-year collaboration with the Department of Defense, the 5G and 5G office. And it’s run through our Boulder office, which is a research and development lab called the Institute for Telecommunications Sciences. What we are doing is bringing together companies to really test and work together in the lab to really drive innovation.
Tom Temin All right. And then what is it specifically that you’re asking the contestants to do? And I guess there’s seven companies that have won a preliminary round.
April Delaney Yes. Let me tell you a little bit about why it matters and what the contestants are doing. We have a handful of companies in this country that sell wireless network equipment. Other subsystems really don’t work well together, it’s a proprietary closed market. And mobile network operators prefer to deploy these wireless networks and there’s many subparts within them. What we want to do is to kind of break apart a lot of these subcomponents and have more of a plug and play environment, so that there is more competition and more interoperability. And in that plug and play environment, we will really drive down costs, but also allow there to be more secure and trusted networks, which is a key advantage. So what are we doing in terms of like who is involved and what we’re doing? Well, [Department of Defense (DoD)] has really worked with us to bring about a host of different companies to come in with [Radio Unit (RU)], [Distributed Unit (DU)] and [Central Unit (CU)] components, and to really work in a lab together to see how in a cold configuration environment that we can really plug and play and really drive innovation to see how these multiple vendors can cold pair their technologies. And this is the second phase of this. And so it is an evolution on the first one.
Tom Temin Yeah, And a quick question. You mentioned RU, CU, DU, sounds like a nursery rhyme. RU is Radio Unit. What is CU and DU?
April Delaney The DU and CU are different elements that deal with both the hardware and software integration part, that kind of interface together.
Tom Temin Who would benefit from this interoperability?
April Delaney It’s an excellent question. Consumers, because there will be more innovation and more companies are involved. It’ll also allow startups who are not large companies to be able to come in and try and be part of this ecosystem. But most importantly, I think as we break apart the supply chain, we are also able to have, as you know, there are only a handful of companies out there that really are producing radios right now in the international environment. And we want to protect some of these networks that are not secure, and we want our commercial individual security data not to be at risk. And so I think just globally, by having more equipment vendors, we’ll be able to really facilitate more trusted networks across the globe and domestically. So I think both consumers, network providers and also innovators. So it is really a triple bottom line in a lot of ways. And public private partnerships, I think, are really important in this arena.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with April Delaney. She’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for communications and Information. It sounds like something that the emergency communications community would benefit from, because they’ve got a real cost issue and interoperability issue and trying to provide emergency communications.
April Delaney That’s a very interesting thing. NTIA, across its divisions, also works with our [Next Generation (NG911)] community and our FirstNet Responder network. And yes, I do think that in the long term, and maybe even the short term, Open RAN technology will allow there to be more cost competitive alternatives to a closed proprietary rack, and as such, really will be able to allow different types and more affordable deployment of public safety communications. Now, I have to say, Open RAN is something that people say it’s not if, but when. I just came back from Mobile World Congress. There is Cloud RAN, there’s almost Open RAN but pure plug and play is not here yet. And that is why it’s really important to come to a lab and to test and to really figure out how each of these different components work together.
Tom Temin And let’s talk about how the competition works. You got 23 white papers, and then from those you down selected people that will get developmental research and development money?
April Delaney Well, I think what has happened is we had different research papers, and then through the different phases, we were able to come down to about seven different providers on teams one and teams two to do this cold integrations. So in this 2023 challenge, what we’re doing is bringing these various providers of like Mavenir or Radisys or Capgemini or Fujitsu, just these different providers from across the spectrum, different components. And to allow them, as we say, it’s really important in this cold integration environment to really start speaking with one another. And the contestants that use this independent host lab really say it’s an incredible opportunity, because across the globe there are these different pilots that are happening. But to really have a lab where you can work collaboratively is amazing. For instance, in the ’23 5G challenge, the contestants will try to establish end-to-end network connections, but then the contestants will test to see if they can transfer a call from one contestant network to another. It’s called mobility testing. And this is what happens when you talk on the phone when driving down the highway. The network passes from one tower to another. Currently, this type of plug and play doesn’t exist in the marketplace. And so what we’re trying to do is just really drive innovation through this collaboration. And I have to say, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Department of Defense, because they have been very involved and looking to develop a more secure supply chain and just this robust U.S. industrial base, both for, I think, our global economic U.S. leadership, but also in terms of our national security and trusted 5G infrastructure. But their ability to help us with this R&D as a U.S. agency is really incredible. And it also will help in the development of what they call Open RAN standards and technologies that are in the infancy stages. Obviously, as you come together, it will be very helpful.
Tom Temin And this idea of interoperability of equipment, does this extend upward to like Verizon and AT&T, and maybe there’s one or two other primary generators of 5G bandwidth. Are they interoperable at that level?
April Delaney It’s really interesting you say that. OK, so I just came back from Mobile World Congress and we had global operators, we had our U.S. operators. And what happens is the operators go to network integrators to deploy their networks. And so it will help them have more choice and what type of networks they can deploy, because now they are kind of in a closed proprietary network, whether it’s Nokia or it could be two or three different types of Ericsson or what have you that are trusted vendors, but they usually come at a proprietary rack. And so what you’ll be able to do is have more choice for them to deploy different type of networks, and perhaps, in a more cost effective way. Now, this is still in the testing phase. And so I think that’s why you hear from major operators, the AT&T, different type of operators that this is still in the testing phase, and that they want to make sure that their quality is there and the security is there. Dish Network is now going into deployment of some Open Ran as well.
Tom Temin Interesting. And I guess a final question, what will be the outcome, ultimately, of the competition you’re running? Will it be schematics for equipment that people can make? Or will it be a set of standards that anyone can build to?
April Delaney Well, I think this competition is really about driving innovation. And innovation, I mean that this truly is mixing and matching equipment. And so what we’re hoping that comes out of this, is that eventually, there will be enough innovation to do major deployments, both domestically and internationally of Open RAN technologies. And in so doing, we’re hopeful also that there is greater innovation and things that come out of that testing. That is the endgame. But in these different phases as that were going through them, I think that it’s evolutionary and they’re starting to look at what will happen in the long term will be really kind of more integration as we go into 5G and 6G. And then, the last thing I will say is, that NTIA is also overseeing a $1.5 billion public wireless supply chain innovation fund. We call it the Innovation Fund for short. And it is separate and apart from the 5G challenge, but that also on the same lines, seeks to drive this supply chain diversification and funding and smaller projects grants that will allow different companies to do the same sort of thing in independent labs across the country. Our first phase of the NOFO, the notice of funding opportunity of the Innovation Fund, will be coming out in the next month or two, and then it will continue over the next few years.