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US defense department wants to fund open, interoperable 5G

Washington looks to private sector help for Open RAN ambitions

The US Department of Defense is encouraging companies to build open and interoperable 5G, and it's willing to shell out a portion of $3 million to anyone who provides a solution.

That's the gist of the DoD and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Institute for Telecommunication Sciences' (ITS) 5G Challenge Preliminary Event.

In particular, the DoD and ITS are looking for hardware and/or software solutions compliant with the 3GPP R15 standard and O-RAN alliance specifications that are parts of a Radio Access Network unit: The radio unit (RU), distributed unit (DU) and centralized unit (CU). 

The US already earmarked $750m in special grants back in 2020 to support the domestic development of the open standards tech.

Analysts at the Dell'Oro Group in 2021 revised their forecasts for worldwide OpenRAN revenues upwards - projecting that they would hit between $10 billion and $15 billion by 2025.

RAN networks are what connect cellphones and other mobile devices to carrier 5G networks, and the DoD said that the current state of wireless networks and proprietary RANs has been a disaster. Each element in the network contains closed-source components, and a change to one part of the network can require reverification of the entire system.

"This industry dynamic increases costs, slows innovation, and reduces competition, often making security issues difficult to detect and resolve," the DoD said. To that end, the challenge aims to foster a world of 5G plug-and-play interoperability that will "foster a large, vibrant, and diverse vendor community [while]unleashing a new era of technological innovation based on this critical technology." 

It would be hard to discuss innovation in the US 5G space without mentioning China, which has led 5G deployments and development in recent years. It's no coincidence that the 5G Challenge emerged when it did, either: The DoD's acting 5G program director Amanda Toman said as much. 

It won't have gone unnoticed, either, that Huawei still holds many of the 5G patents.

"5G is too critical a technology sector to relinquish to countries whose products and technologies are not aligned with our standards of privacy and security," Toman said in the DoD's announcement of the challenge. 

The 5G preliminary challenge

The 5G Challenge Preliminary Event is focusing solely on RAN subsystem interoperability. It has the state goals of utilizing existing open interface standards, considering industry trends (toward virtualization, softwarization and cloud migration), developing modular hardware, demonstrating multi-vendor interoperability, and lowering barriers to entry for new companies. 

The challenge is being hosted by Louisville, Colorado-based CableLabs, a research lab for the cable industry with a history of supporting interoperability events. Participants will be given time in the lab with an emulated 5G system, two SA 5G cores and two vRANs. 

Those whose designs are selected will be splitting one of two prize pools: Up to 12 teams will split $2 million ($150,000 each) at the end of stage two of the competition (emulated integration), and one team will win an additional $200,000. Finally, at the network integration stage that will end the competition, up to four teams will each get $250,000. 

Entry in the 5G RAN interoperability challenge is open now, and contestants have until May 5, 2022, to enter. ®

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