Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Why are the US government and DoD in particular interested in Open RAN?

Over the last 24 months, it has been very interesting to see that the US Government has been moving from keen interest in Open RAN to make it policy for its procurement of connectivity technology.

As I am preparing to present for next week's RIC Forum, organized by NTIA and the US Department of Defense, many of my clients have been asking why the US Government seems so invested in Open RAN.

Supply chain diversification:

The first reason for this interest is the observation that the pool of network equipment provider has been growing increasingly shallow. The race from 3G to 4G to 5G has required vendors to attain a high level of industrialization and economy of scale, that has been achieved through many rounds of concentration. A limited supply chain with few vendors per category represents a strategic risk for the actor relying on this supply chain to operate economically. Open RAN allows the emergence of new vendors in specific categories that do not necessitate the industrial capacity to be delivering end to end RAN networks.

Cost effectiveness:

The lack of vendor choice has shifted negotiating power from network operators to vendors, which has negatively impacted margins and capacity to make changes. The emergence of new Open RAN vendors puts pressure on incumbents and traditional vendors to reduce their margins.

Geostrategic interest:

The growth of Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese vendors, with their suspected links to the Chinese government and Army, together with the somewhat obscure privacy and security laws there, has prompted the US government and many allies to ban or severely restraint the categories of Telecom Products that can be deployed in many telecom networks.

Furthermore, while US companies dominate traffic management, routing, data centers and hyperscalers space, the RAN, core network and general telco infrastructure remains dominated by European and Asian vendors. Open RAN has been an instrument to facilitate and accelerate Chinese vendors replacement, but also to stimulate the US vendors to emerge and grow.

DoD use case example: Spectrum Dominance

This area is less well understood and recognized but is an integral part of US Government generally and DoD's in particular interest in Open RAN. Private networks require connectivity products adapted for specific use cases, devices and geographies. Commercial macro networks offer "one size fits all" solution that are difficult and costly to adapt for that purpose. Essentially DoD runs hundreds of private networks, whether on its bases, its carriers or in ad hoc tactical environments. Being able to setup a secure, programmable, cost effective network, either permanently or ad hoc is an essential requirement, and can also become a differentiator or a force multiplier. A tactical unit deploying an ad hoc network might look at means not only to create a secure subnet, but also to establish spectrum dominance by manipulating waveforms and effectively interfering with adverse networks. This is one example where programmability at the RAN level can turn into an asset for battlefield dominance. There are many more use cases, but their classification might not enable us to publicly comment them. They illustrate though how technological dominance can extend to every aspect of telecom.

Open RAN in that respect provides programmability, cost effectiveness and modularity to create fit for purpose connectivity experiences in a multi vendor environment.

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