Smaller carriers and networks are the weakest link in America’s telecommunications supply chain, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks claimed while speaking at a supply chain integrity workshop.
“I’ve spoken to many rural wireless carriers about how they came to purchase Huawei and ZTE equipment in the first place. While they did so legally and in good faith, concerns about this equipment aren’t exactly new,” he said, noting a nearly decade-old bipartisan report from the House Intelligence Committee that urged carriers to avoid procuring kit from the two Chinese vendors.
Rural carriers bought this gear because of financial limitations. Unable to take advantage of the same bulk discounts enjoyed by larger outfits like AT&T and Verizon, and with a smaller user-base, the comparatively affordable kit offered by Huawei and ZTE looked more attractive as a result.
In short, these rural carriers, which are often small family-run businesses, operated from a place of economic necessity. Reforms made during the tail-end of the Trump Administration, which included a (hotly contested) prohibition on using federal subsidies to buy Huawei- and ZTE-made kit, and were followed by a rip-and-replace mandate, do not address these fundamentals.
Starks said he believes OpenRAN is the solution to this problem, citing its vendor-agnostic approach and the trend among vendors to deploy functionality upgrades as software, rather than as a hardware product that must be acquired, deployed, and maintained.
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Starks also gushed about the OpenRAN security model, which he claimed provides increased transparency and visibility, due to the presence of multiple different vendors within a single RAN stack.
“Traditional closed network systems can have security flaws that don’t become known because they involve only a single vendor that may keep that information non-public. In contrast, because Open RAN necessarily involves multiple vendors, security problems can be identified and resolved more rapidly than in traditional networks,” he said.
And while perhaps of little interest to the small carriers trying to make a crust on federal subsidies and desperately thin margins, Starks emphasised that OpenRAN offers the potential for the US to re-stake its place in the telecoms hardware market, which had largely been surrendered to the likes of Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei. Vendors cited as an example include Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless.
Last month, the FCC opened up its first inquiry into OpenRAN networks. The Commission aims to determine the current state of the technology, which is in its most nascent stages, as well as how investment from other parts of the government can help.
Speaking at the workshop, Acting Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel said OpenRAN has the opportunity to boost American competitiveness, while reducing the country's exposure to potentially dangerous third-party vendors.
“There is good reason to think that disaggregating the RAN brings real benefits for the supply chain, including more security, lower costs, more competition, and reduced exposure to any single foreign vendor. It could also push the network equipment market to where the United States is uniquely skilled—in software,” she said.
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Rosenworcel described this as just one pillar in the FCC's three-pronged strategy to boost American telco security, with the agency taking a more proactive approach to limiting the involvement of untrusted actors across both hardware and services.
She cited the barring of China Mobile from the US domestic market, and alluded to the previous regime's banning of Huawei and ZTE. The agency plans to maintain a regularly updated-list of untrusted vendors and providers, with data compiled by other branches of the government.
Finally, Rosenworcel said the FCC will work collaboratively with friendly foreign governments, in addition to building deeper relationships with other parts of the US federal government.
This will likely prove to be music to the ears of the UK's Telecoms Diversification Task Force, which urged the UK to work closely with trusted international partners to build long-term communications standards that go beyond the current 5G spec, and would give the West a lead over a rapidly ascendent China. ®