Biden admin keeps O-RAN dream alive with $42M funding for R&D facility

AT&T, Verizon leading new initiative to finally commercialize OpenRAN technology, sans timeline

The Biden administration is keeping America's dreams of a future filled with open radio access network (OpenRAN) kit alive after awarding $42.3 million to a new consortium dedicated to commercialization of the tech. 

The cash for the project comes from the CHIPS and Science Act's Wireless Innovation Fund, and is going toward the construction of a new R&D center in Dallas, Texas with a satellite office in Washington, DC. The facility will be operated by the newly formed Acceleration of Compatibility and Commercialization for Open RAN Deployments (ACCoRD) project, which is being helmed by AT&T and Verizon. 

"The center will focus testing on network performance, interoperability, security, and facilitate research into new testing methods," the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said in a statement. "By investing in open, interoperable networks, NTIA is laying the foundation for a stronger, more secure and more resilient telecommunications supply chain." 

Along with leadership from AT&T and Verizon, international telcos are also participating, with non-funded consortium partners including Japanese telecom firm NTT DOCOMO and India's Reliance Jio. 

The US has been abuzz with efforts to commercialize OpenRAN technology for several years, owing largely to the perceived threat of Chinese tech giant Huawei's large share of the 5G radio market and its alleged ties to the Chinese government. 

Huawei hardware has classically been widespread in cellular networks in the United States and elsewhere, but in 2019 the US government placed the company on its entity list to block exports to Huawei and its affiliates. In 2022, the Biden administration further banned US telcos from purchasing tech from Huawei or ZTE, another Chinese telecom OEM, citing threats to national security. 

Efforts to "rip and replace" Huawei and ZTE equipment in US networks is ongoing, and facing delays.

Instead of relying on Chinese manufacturers with closed architecture network hardware, the US wants its domestic telecoms to draw on the expertise of companies from the US and its allies to develop equipment and software that's able to be mixed and matched, the key concept behind OpenRAN architecture. 

To facilitate that goal, ACCoRD has signed with a number of suppliers, including Microsoft, Nokia, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Samsung, RedHat, VMWare, Intel and Cisco. 

"Evaluating how different products integrate with one another is a crucial part of facilitating the more diverse vendor ecosystem that many in the industry and government envision," said Robert Soni, AT&T's VP of RAN technology. Soni said he hopes the inclusion of a large number of parties will lead to an OpenRAN platform able to easily incorporate additional vendors in the future. 

It's not clear what sort of timeline the NTIA, or the ACCoRD partners, have in mind for the project. We've asked, but haven't heard back. ®

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