The 2023 Hogan Lovells Winnik Forum focused on Open RAN (“O-RAN”). The major elements of the March 24th event were 1) Two policy keynote speakers - Anne Neuberger, Deputy National Security Advisor, and Senator Mark Warner; 2) Two panel discussions - An operator panel and a technical panel; and 3) a cocktail hour to finish the event. Amanda Toman from the NITA’s Innovation Fund, and Umair Javed, Chief Counsel to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel gave shorter presentations.
The consensus was that O-RAN has much promise for increasing competition, lowering equipment prices, and spurring innovation. However, it is in its early days. DISH Networks’ new greenfield wireless network was the first fully O-RAN network. Their representative admitted it was much more difficult than they expected. Virtually every speaker acknowledged that O-RAN would be more difficult to roll out in an existing (“brownfield”) network.
One large source of difficulties with O-RAN seems to lie in the challenges of integrating different hardware from different vendors. There was significant discussion about vendors publishing their specifications in greater detail, having independent bodies do compatibility testing, etc. As the O-RAN hardware is more cloud-managed, initial compatibility might not be sufficient. [AM Comment: Some readers may remember the earlier days of personal computers when you might upgrade your operating system, and then your printer would not work].
The policy angle by the two government speakers seemed to focus on the potential for O-RAN to eventually lower prices to make it more competitive with Chinese equipment manufacturers. Operators would not need to choose between a closed system of, for example, Ericsson or Nokia – they could mix and match vendors. Smaller new entrants would not need to provide an end-to-end solution but could come to market with only one or two network elements. They would not need to have an end-to-end suite of products. The government speakers seemed eager to encourage O-RAN and even to subsidize it to achieve economies of scale faster.
While O-RAN was touted as improving national security by creating a cost-effective alternative to Huawei and ZTE, it comes with other security issues. O-RAN’s open API architecture means multiple vendors may be accessing the API. With multiple vendors accessing the API, the risks of each vendor need to be evaluated together and not just independently, massively increasing the risk analysis. However, because O-RAN is largely cloud-based, operators have a greater ability to see all parts of their networks to detect security problems. There was also no consensus about whether O-RAN is more energy efficient than classical RAN. One of the interesting insights was the O-RAN appears to be one of the few major technical innovations being pushed by wireless operators, as opposed to by the major equipment vendors - perhaps because, in the long run, O-RAN threatens to change the power dynamics between wireless carriers and those major vendors.