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NIST dreams of cellular networks free from 5G vendor lock in, supply chain pain

Nokia radio units working with Ericsson distribute units? What's next? Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) wants to prevent supply chain challenges and vendor lock-in that might get in the way of US carrier's 5G rollouts.

This week the agency, which operates under the US Commerce Department, threw its weight behind the O-RAN Alliance. The industry consortium, which is made up of network operators, equipment vendors, academic institutions and government agencies, seeks to establish open standards for the interoperability of radio access network (RAN) equipment.

The past two years have been punctuated by one supply chain challenge after another driven in large part by a broader semiconductor shortage. Shortages of even minor components, like metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) or power management integrated circuits (PMIC), can result in extended lead times for products even when key components like ASICs, CPUs, or FPGAs are readily available.

Long lead times are further complicated by closed ecosystems that mandate equipment from matching vendors. And its this dynamic that NIST hopes to break. "NIST will enhance US leadership in wireless technologies and promote stable and diverse supply chains, which are a priority for this administration," NIST Director Laurie Locascio, said of the agency decision to join the O-RAN alliance, in a statement.

For those that aren't intimately familiar with individual pieces that go into a cell tower, RAN typically refers to three core components, the radio unit, distributed unit, and central unit, which handle the send, receiving, and processing of data as it traverses a cellular network. These components have traditionally been highly integrated and delivered by a handful of vendors, with Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei being major suppliers. More recently efforts to virtualize and/or standardize the communication between equipment and software used in RAN deployments have given birth to and virtual RAN and open RAN.

NIST is no stranger to open RAN. The agency has been working to address some of biggest challenges facing disaggregated networks for years now, and there are still plenty of challenges.

 NIST isn't the only US agency with an interest in promoting open RAN developments either. Last April, the US Department of Defense dangled 3 million in funding to promote vendor interoperability across carrier networks.

But while open RAN has steadily gained traction, many vendors understandably aren't in a rush to tear down their walled gardens. Last June, Nokia President of Mobile Networks Tommi Uitto criticized the argument that open RAN would boost competition and lower costs and arguing that working with other suppliers on multivendor deployments had proven difficult during an interview with industry pub Light Reading.

Open RAN critics often point to performance bottlenecks associated with disaggregating cellular network equipment. The argument being that while open RAN equipment from two different vendors may work together, the combination may not be able to deliver peak performance. According to NIST, there are also security challenges associated with mixing and matching software and hardware that need to be overcome.

These challenges haven't stopped carriers from building open RAN networks, with Japan's Rakkuten Mobile being among the first to deploy open RAN equipment en masse.

While the O-RAN alliance promotes open standards for interoperability, it's worth noting that it doesn't change the fact that many of these technologies rely on tightly controlled patents held by an even smaller number of players.

Notably Samsung, which has expanded its RAN portfolio in recent years with the help of Marvell's Octeon infrastructure and data processing units, still relies on license agreements with Nokia to do business. This week, Nokia announced it had reached an agreement with Samsung to extend access to the Finish telecom vendor's 5G patents. ®

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