LEWISTON – Chip Damato didn’t think he was picking sides in the U.S.-China tech war when he sent a crew to the roof of the Lewis Clark Hotel last year to install new telecommunications equipment.
The rural wireless network Damato runs needed to cut costs, so he and his team turned to a cheaper experimental technology. After a successful trial at the hotel, near an 1805 campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Inland Cellular added dozens more cell sites to the canyons and hilltops of the territory it serves.
Now interest in this new technology is growing beyond this rugged corner of Idaho – in part because some U.S. officials and lawmakers see it as a way to challenge Huawei, the Chinese company that has dominated global sales of equipment for wireless networks for years.
The Trump administration calls Huawei gear a security threat and has urged allies not to use it in their ultrafast 5G networks, but a lack of alternatives has hampered that campaign.
Eager to promote other options, lawmakers in the House and Senate proposed bipartisan legislation this year that would provide at least $750 million to support the new tech.
“Every month that the U.S. does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who co-founded a telecom company earlier in his career. “We need to move beyond observing the problem to providing alternatives for U.S. and foreign network operators.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, considers the technology “the future” and is encouraging industry to develop it through several experiments the Department of Defense is backing this year, using part of its $200 million 5G budget, spokesman Lt. Col Robert Carver said by email.
The new approach, known as an open radio access network, or OpenRAN, uses U.S. software to connect network hardware made by a variety of companies. Backers say the ability to pick and choose hardware from different suppliers makes it cheaper than the complete equipment-and-software packages sold by Huawei and its two major rivals, Ericsson and Nokia.
More than a dozen big telecom companies, including AT&T, are testing OpenRAN technology in their networks, according to AT&T’s chief technology officer, Andre Fuetsch, who chairs an industry group backing the approach.
O2, the British mobile company, will switch on an OpenRAN network in southeast London this year, and is readying a wider deployment next year. Fellow British carrier Vodafone, which has operations around the world, said last fall it is considering deploying OpenRAN technology in its European network.
Brendan O’Reilly, chief technology officer at O2, said telecom operators need to break their dependence on the big three equipment suppliers. “Overreliance on those vendors, no matter where they’re from, is not good for us as an industry,” he said in an interview. “Our future, the U.K. future, is definitely OpenRAN.”
Wireless networks use cellular towers to exchange voice and data with mobile devices via radio waves, allowing devices to communicate with each other and with the internet. The latest fifth-generation, or 5G, networks offer much faster transmission speeds that are expected to connect a new era of machines to the internet, such as self-driving cars and smart appliances.
The aim of OpenRAN technology is to move the complexity of these networks to the operating software, while turning the hardware on a cell tower into an interchangeable commodity. O2’s London test will use software from Mavenir, a company in Richardson, Texas, while the Idaho network uses software from Parallel Wireless of Nashua, New Hampshire. Altiostar of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, is another supplier.
Some industry executives caution that OpenRAN is in its infancy, and faces challenges. For one, many telecom companies have already committed to building 5G networks with traditional equipment suppliers.
There are still relatively few companies making an important component of the new networks – the radio heads that sit atop cell towers and trade signals with the radios embedded in mobile devices. Even one of the new technology’s biggest backers – Steve Papa, chief executive of Parallel Wireless – said OpenRAN manufacturers will have a hard time matching the energy efficiency of Huawei’s radio heads unless the United States invests in better semiconductor technology.
At least one U.S. official has expressed doubts that OpenRAN is mature enough to challenge Huawei. “This approach is completely untested, and would take many years to get off the ground,” Attorney General William Barr, a former telecom company lawyer, said in a speech in February. To counter Huawei, he said, the U.S. should try to bolster Ericsson and Nokia to help them sell more gear.
Damato said he’s far removed from these geopolitical debates. “Listen, we’re isolated here. We’re on our own,” he said from his offices in Lewiston, a picturesque city of 33,000 people near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.
“We’re not going to be in the mix when it comes to any kind of regulatory issue or anything that happens at the government level,” he said. “We’ve got to go out and be as resourceful as we can.”
Cost was the main reason Inland Cellular turned to an OpenRAN network, Damato said, estimating the technology has cut the price of each cell site by 40%, to about $20,000. That’s an important consideration as telecom companies build 5G systems, which require more cells.
For many years, Inland Cellular used Ericsson equipment in its 3G network but grew frustrated by the expense, Damato said. When it needed to upgrade its system or add a new feature, it had to accept Ericsson’s pricing because it was locked into Ericsson’s proprietary technology.
“Anything you wanted to do was a huge financial hit on us,” Damato said. “Based on what we were doing, we couldn’t survive … so we went out looking for alternatives.”
Ericsson said it doesn’t comment on specific customers, but noted it has invested “tens of billions of dollars” in cellular technology over the years.
Inland Cellular broke away from Ericsson and began diversifying its network several years ago, when it started building a 4G system.
All wireless networks have two main parts – a radio access network made of up cell sites that send and receive signals, and a core of computer servers that direct much of the system’s traffic.
Inland Cellular chose a Chicago-area company called ExteNet Systems to supply its 4G core, favoring that vendor because its technology would sync with any radio access network.
The Idaho telecom company chose Nokia to supply the radio access network. That setup worked for a while, but when it came time to upgrade or add new features, Inland Cellular had to pay Nokia’s prices, which were high, Damato said.
At a trade show, Damato and his colleagues learned about Parallel Wireless, a 500-person company that has supplied OpenRAN software to pilot projects in Europe, South America and the Middle East. A small carrier in rural Alaska is also using a Parallel Wireless system.
Inland Cellular first tested OpenRAN technology in a lab, and later at the hotel, situating the gear inside a belfry-type structure on the roof.
The compact assemblage of metal boxes and wires – about the height of a parking meter – includes a radio head supplied by Parallel Wireless and an antenna from the German company Kathrein that helps the radio head send and receive signals. The equipment connects to a short rack of Dell EMC servers in the basement of the hotel, which runs the Parallel Wireless software.
The result was impressive, Damato said – the equipment transferred data more efficiently than the network’s other cell sites, and synced well with them. The lower cost per site allowed Inland Cellular to quickly add more cell sites to rooftops and telephone poles in Lewiston, improving service in its most heavily trafficked area.
Inland Cellular also used the technology to expand into new, rural regions of Idaho and Eastern Washington, giving it new sources of revenue. All of its OpenRAN sites connect to the servers in the hotel basement, which run the radio access network.
“There was absolutely no way we could continue to grow in the direction we needed to go without that style of RAN,” Damato said. The system is a 4G network but can be converted to 5G down the road, through additional cell sites and a software upgrade, he said.
Other small telecom companies around the country, also hoping to cut costs, have contacted Damato asking about his network.
OpenRAN also has important supporters outside the telecom industry – Intel and Facebook, which see the technology as a way to expand their businesses. Intel makes the semiconductors that run the standard computer servers used in OpenRAN networks. Facebook stands to gain more users around the world if OpenRAN technology lowers the cost of wireless networks and allows more countries to build them.
The companies, along with Europe’s biggest telecom carriers, oversee a four-year-old industry alliance that’s promoting trials of the technology. The Telecom Infra Project, or TIP, has helped set up test sites in Peru, Turkey and Mozambique.
Expanding access to “high-quality internet” is good for communities and “for industries and businesses of all kinds, including Facebook,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Nokia is also a member of TIP and other industry groups studying the technology. The company said it supports more research to ensure OpenRAN tech meets the “security, reliability and performance” needs of telecom companies.
Asked about OpenRAN during an October investor call, Ericsson Chief Executive Borje Ekholm called it “an area that we are surely going to participate in.” Huawei said it welcomes innovation but is uncertain “whether these technologies will meet carriers’ needs.”
OpenRAN supporters acknowledge there aren’t enough radio-head manufacturers for the market to really flourish. KMW Inc., a Korean company with an R&D unit in the U.S., is supplying the radio heads used in Parallel Wireless networks. Comba Telecom, based in Hong Kong, is another vendor, and says it’s seen “significant growth” in the OpenRAN market over the past year. NewEdge Signal Solutions of Ayer, Massachusetts, is planning to start selling a radio head for OpenRAN this year, according to CEO Tom Lambalot. AceAxis in Swindon, U.K., said it’s also working on one.
TIP, meanwhile, announced an initiative this year to encourage more radio-head makers into the market.
Papa, the Parallel Wireless chief executive, said his company has applied to the Pentagon for R&D funding to improve the semiconductors that run radio heads. “Semiconductor innovation is the only route to make OpenRAN radios better than Huawei’s,” he said in an interview.
Although telecom companies are hoping OpenRAN will turn hardware into a commodity, they need to be willing to pay enough to attract new radio-head makers to the field, Lambalot said in an interview. An OpenRAN radio head can cost between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the features it includes, he said.
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