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The Future of 5G Must Be “Open”
May 05,2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how vital connectivity is to society and the economy. The widespread adoption of 5G technologies has the potential to make connectivity an even more powerful tool, transforming how we live and work for the better. The increases in network speed and capacity 5G offers will not just improve existing technologies such as video streaming but also enable entirely new applications that existing networks cannot easily support.


Connected vehicles that can communicate with streetlights to improve traffic flows, farms that can report soil moisture and nutrient levels in real time, telemedicine services that can support real-time, high-quality video streaming in rural areas, other applications for smart cities, agriculture, infrastructure, and more will all finally be within reach.


We are at a watershed moment in the history of technology, as decisions we make today about how to build 5G networks will have an unprecedented impact on business transformation. To ensure that this impact is positive and to unlock the full potential of 5G, these technologies must rely on open interfaces and open source-driven cloud technologies. In short, 5G must be “open” so that a diverse pool of suppliers can compete to develop the most innovative, secure, and cost-effective products.


Many of the benefits of 5G networks come from greater reliance on software than previous generations of wireless technology. In 5G networks, software can manage network operations and perform operations previously controlled by hardware through network virtualization and cloud computing. For example, in existing wireless communications infrastructure, network performance hinges largely on the technical limitations and proper functioning of specific hardware. Through network virtualization, 5G networks are not nearly as limited by hardware, as software can emulate the performance of different kinds of specialized hardware and be updated and repaired remotely.


These software approaches, particularly cloud computing, can enable innovation on a massive scale and support new kinds of applications not possible on 4G networks. The use of open source software here is critical, allowing for greater control by providing the ability to examine every aspect of code and change what’s not working, increased stability due to less need to maintain and replace hardware, and greater resiliency, as it allows for anyone to inspect and fix problems, errors, or omissions. Additionally, open interfaces can ensure that all the components of a 5G network, from the edge to the core, can easily interoperate, enabling greater competition. It is easy to see how the combination of open interfaces and open source- driven cloud technologies could dramatically benefit the 5G ecosystem.


Unfortunately, some telecom market leaders rely on and continue to build closed technologies that prevent the integration of hardware or software from different vendors. This has created a global chokepoint in the availability of critical 5G technologies.


Closed systems can:


  • Dramatically impede competition and innovation. Inhibiting third parties from developing offerings that will work with those systems prevents a “plug and play” approach to 5G, and this lack
    of competitive pressure reduces incentives for incumbent companies to innovate.
  • Increase vendor lock-in, driving up costs. Vendor lock-in can force customers to continue to use these closed systems lest they pay high switching costs to replace their entire network.
  • Jeopardize reliability. Should a 5G network rely heavily on closed technology from only one provider, the reliability and trustworthiness of the network is put in jeopardy if the provider becomes unable to maintain these technologies.


To be clear, this is not a problem unique to any one bad actor – it’s a problem endemic to the use of closed technologies. These problems are particularly evident in the radio access network (RAN) layer at the edge of 5G networks. The radio access network relies on several pieces of hardware and software working together to foster connectivity between devices like smart phones, connected vehicles, and sensors and the network core. The use of closed, black-box architectures by some companies prevents their technology from easily, seamlessly, and securely working with technology from any other provider, limiting innovation and competition in the RAN layer.


Fortunately, many in industry are coalescing around the idea that open approaches to 5G are vital to their business, just as they are vital to national security and the economy. Open technologies were critical to the success of generations of technological advancement, including the Internet itself. Now, companies new and old, large and small, from Asia, Europe, and the United States are applying this open approach to the 5G space, both at the RAN layer and beyond, with hopes of driving even greater innovation and economic growth. For example, IBM has pledged to adopt the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) standard, along with many other companies, as the foundation for the critically important RAN layer of 5G networks.


The O-RAN standard is a multiplier, enabling exponential growth in 5G by fostering healthy competition in software communities, as contributors define open specifications so that components from different companies can work together to form a “best of breed” solution. Open 5G architectures like the O-RAN standard break down “walled gardens” and drive innovation.


While IBM and other companies are leading the development and deployment of open technologies-based 5G, government can help accelerate this transformation. Policymakers should take actions now to speed the development and adoption of these open networks to benefit consumers, competition, the economy, and national security.


First and foremost, governments should develop National 5G Strategies promoting the adoption of open architectures and open source-driven cloud technologies. This would capitalize on the strength of the software development and computing industries and ensure that small and large firms alike could be globally competitive in 5G.


As part of National 5G Strategies, governments should also use existing promotion authorities and procurement mechanisms to advance open 5G technologies. For example, in the United States:


  • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should use its convening authority to discuss, report on, and promote open 5G technologies to raise awareness and adoption domestically and globally.
  • The Department of Defense should use its procurement authorities to fast-track and give preferred consideration for 5G solutions that utilize open architectures, especially O-RAN and open source cloud technologies, in its 5G infrastructure pilots.
  • The Federal Communications Commission should encourage industry to only fund the purchase of 5G telecommunications equipment that utilizes open architectures.


Additionally, governments should incentivize and accelerate competitiveness in 5G. In the United States, the federal government should:


  • Accelerate research and development of open 5G technologies by industry, research agencies, and academia. This could include direct financial incentives for organizations leading these efforts, such as grants funded by money raised from spectrum auctions or other sources or low- or no-interest loans for 5G investments; tax incentives, such as an increase in the R&D tax credit specifically for 5G investments; and investments in human capital, such as working with the National Science Foundation to spur R&D and skills development. This could also include an emphasis on open interfaces in federal research agencies and incorporate the use of open interfaces in 5G pilot projects. A sustained pipeline of R&D can help to promote networking innovation as well as develop incentives to help ensure a diverse pool of trusted suppliers over the long term.
  • Support the rapid deployment of open 5G technologies. This could include grants and interest-free loans for companies and municipalities to deploy 5G networks built with open-source driven architectures. This should also include funding vehicles cooperatively supported and administered with trusted international partners to foster the development of a robust and competitive market for open 5G technologies.


If national governments move quickly to accelerate the adoption of open 5G architectures, they can maximize the benefits 5G can offer – for consumers, the economy, and national security. But if they do not, closed architectures will stifle innovation and competition, raise costs, and put the security and resilience of 5G networks at risk. Many countries are well positioned to be competitive in 5G, but only if policymakers take action to ensure that the future of 5G is “open.”



Joshua New, Senior Fellow, IBM Policy Lab



About IBM Policy Lab
The IBM Policy Lab is a new forum providing policymakers with a vision and actionable recommendations to harness the benefits of innovation while ensuring trust in a world being reshaped by data. As businesses and governments break new ground and deploy technologies that are positively transforming our world, we work collaboratively on public policies to meet the challenges of tomorrow.


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