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Open design is driving the 5G industry

Industry looks with interest on a joint DoD-NTIA initiative to spur innovation and competition.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Defense are jointly encouraging the development of an open 5G ecosystem, a development that could have a lasting impact on 5G networks across the U.S.

In January 2021, the two government bodies launched an initiative to develop a framework for open 5G and published a 5G Challenge Notice of Inquiry to solicit input from industry players regarding the program. (Comments to that request were due in February and are publicly available here.)

The goal is to spur the participation of many players to develop a highly robust 5G implementation as an alternative to Chinese initiatives that have been rejected by the U.S. government due to cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The initiative follows the Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act of 2020, which mandated Open RAN technology for 5G systems and the establishment of 5G testbeds at military bases.

Please read: How 5G and Open RAN are changing the economics of wireless

DoD and other U.S. government stakeholders also want to encourage domestic development of telecommunications products, but participants from many countries are involved. "Excluding Chinese players, I expect the whole 5G ecosystem to compete," says Stéphane Téral, chief analyst at LightCounting, a market research firm. "That means all vendors involved in end-to-end 5G architecture and services."

Collaboration is key

Jeff Edlund, chief technology officer of the communications technology group at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, says the scope of 5G will require the collaboration of many players. "In the core network—both the user plane and the control plane—there are a ton of network functions. There is no way for one vendor to specialize on best of breed for every single network function," says Edlund, adding that single-vendor solutions will have compromises. He points out, for example, that HPE partners with several other companies for 5G technologies, including Samsung and Casa Systems for session and user-plane technology.

Please read: 5G and cloud: Telcos fight for the future

Such collaborative efforts follow the trail blazed by the O-RAN Alliance in creating an ecosystem in which many vendors can compete. "In Open RAN, you get mix and match, with standardized hardware and lower cost," says Lee Doyle, principal analyst at Doyle Research. Indeed, work already underway on Open RAN is expected to play an important part in the DoD-NTIA 5G challenge, according to one participant.

In its response to the challenge, telecom giant Ericsson proposed that the 5G stack challenge occur at a lab managed by the DoD where all vendors can bring their components of the open 5G stack for functional and interoperability testing. Ericsson argues that a multi-vendor "Open Ecosystem Plugfest" of 5G components would encourage both incumbent and new vendors to contribute open 5G stack components within their areas of expertise and innovation.

According to Patrick Filkins, senior research analyst at IDC, participating vendors could benefit from a partially funded R&D effort to develop Open RAN systems, including high-performance radios. Although challenges issued by the federal government often include prize money, that's not so far the case with the open 5G challenge, according to an NTIA spokesperson.

Mainstream benefits in the future?

Although the initiative takes place in the context of governmental affairs and global geopolitics, benefits could be felt by mainstream businesses and individuals within several years.

"The benefits to openness introduce best-of-breed solution building," says Filkins. "In an open system, whereby more vendors are able to compete and win on a best-of-breed approach, you would expect CSPs [cloud service providers] to realize savings driven by more competition," says Filkins. He adds that disaggregated systems could potentially lower Capex costs to a point where the CSP could push those savings out to the customer and compete on price more effectively.

Please read: Why private 5G networks are on the rise

Téral agrees, saying the initiatives are likely to lead to lower costs due to higher competition, greater flexibility in selecting the suppliers, and higher security standards.

As to whether advanced features such as network slicing could gain from interoperable technologies from multiple vendors, that remains to be seen. "With network slicing, you can't just have core. You have to have edge and core, and end to end," says Doyle, adding, "Maybe at some point, multiple vendors could participate."

Lessons for leaders

  • Openness will create innovation and possibilities in the 5G space.
  • Buyers should demand open designs to allow for best-of-breed options for specific functions.
  • Competition and innovation may move 5G networking into more mainstream applications.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.