America's top tech companies are pushing for a software-based approach to building 5G telecom networks that could help the United States and its allies get past the hardware-based leadership position that China's Huawei currently holds.
"We have a point of view which is now pervasive in the industry that the way you will ultimately build out the 5G and beyond infrastructure is not a legacy telco model," said John Roese, the chief technology officer at Dell Technologies, referring to traditional telecom companies that provide all the equipment needed to operate a network in a proprietary black box.
The new idea is to "disaggregate that infrastructure, to open it up, to software define it and run a nonstandardized hardware" to operate the open radio access networks, or RAN, that power cellular technology, Roese told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview.
Dell, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, China Mobile, Microsoft, Cisco, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung and other top tech companies around the world are part of the O-RAN Alliance to push the United States and other governments to break away from proprietary telecom networks and embrace virtual telecom models.
The idea behind virtual telecom models is that you can develop software that takes on the functions currently delivered by proprietary hardware and therefore the new systems can be run on widely available cloud-based servers. A radio access network is an essential element of a mobile telecommunication system that connects user devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets to the core part of a network.
In modern telecom systems, the "radio" is typically a silicon chip that resides on both a user device as well as the core network. In a traditional model, the radio chip is part of proprietary hardware that is supplied by telecom providers. But that could change with the arrival of so-called open radio access networks.
The push to break the traditional telecom model comes after a yearlong effort by the Trump administration to persuade allies not to adopt Huawei's 5G networks because of fears that Beijing could eavesdrop on network traffic.
Loss of leadership
After years of inaction, Congress, the White House and federal agencies such as the Pentagon and the Federal Communications Commission also have woken up to the fact that U.S. global telecom leadership had disappeared in a flurry of mergers and acquisitions through the 2000s, leaving it to rely on European companies or China.
But the Trump administration hasn't fully embraced the idea of backing virtual telecom networks.