Building a FutureG Future Requires Investments

By Nick Maynard and Arun Seraphin

iStock illustration

The Defense Department has correctly identified FutureG as a critical technology area that will lay the groundwork for continued U.S. leadership in information technology, which is vital for maintaining our economic and national security.

While fifth-generation cellular network (5G) communications are becoming commercially available to the United States, the domestic wireless ecosystem is severely challenged by competition from foreign government-subsidized equipment vendors.

Over the past decade, the global wireless equipment market has consolidated into five vendors. Two of these companies, Huawei and ZTE, were designated by the Federal Communications Commission as national security risks due to connections with the Chinese government. The other leading 5G vendors — Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson — are all based overseas, but make up the core of the U.S. equipment market.

The lack of U.S. wireless equipment vendors leaves the Defense Department and domestic service providers vulnerable to price and production swings, creating national security threats.

It is critical that the government continue to invest in next-generation wireless research, prototyping and scale-up. Federal agencies have conducted many research and demonstration efforts on emerging 5G technologies over the past three years. These efforts are creating the technological foundation that will enable 5G to serve as the basis to create the next generation of wireless cellular networks and security technologies for military missions.

One exciting effort is the 2023 5G Challenge being run by the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in partnership with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

For this effort to succeed and enable the nation to regain its spectrum leadership — including in sixth-generation systems and beyond — the domestic wireless ecosystem will need to both develop and adopt a standard architecture usable by industry, startups, academia and government organizations alike.

The early promise of Open Radio Access Network, or O-RAN, technology offers an opportunity for the United States to regain some lost ground and to establish leadership in 5G and beyond. More open and flexible wireless networks can also ultimately increase vendor diversity, increase innovation in wireless networking technology, lower deployment and operational costs and even increase security.

To respond to foreign subsidization, public-private collaborative efforts between government, industry and academia are needed to support a comprehensive effort for the department to develop, validate, and deploy new O-RAN technologies and systems that will be open and interoperable, while enabling a vibrant and competitive marketplace.

One key step will be to increase government collaborations with domestic suppliers to build a 5G consortium that would support the creation of a domestic market and further O-RAN technology in the United States. This emerging technology for next-generation wireless networks is a concept based on interoperability and standardization of Radio Access Network elements, including a unified interconnection standard for white-box hardware and open-source software elements from different vendors.

O-RAN architecture integrates modular base station software coupled with off-the-shelf hardware, allowing baseband and radio unit components from discrete suppliers to operate seamlessly together.

Further U.S. investment into O-RAN would incentivize domestic development and provide a more robust industrial base for next-generation wireless technology. Congress could establish a public-private partnership to accelerate domestically based O-RAN technologies and systems that enable open and interoperable networks.

This effort would benefit national security missions and economic competitiveness by expanding U.S. leadership in advanced technologies that allow access to, increase the control of and use of the data across the electromagnetic spectrum.

However, one of the main barriers to the further development and adoption of O-RAN technology is the lack of at-scale, over-the-air, fully integrated test and development platforms in the United States. Currently, small and innovative equipment or software companies that create O-RAN products cannot conduct full-blown interoperability testing on their own. Due to financial or availability constraints, they often lack access to equipment made by their partners or competitors.

To address near-term market acceleration needs, there is a clear requirement for labs and testbeds to manage interoperability testing and product certification.

Without this capability, operators will not likely have the confidence to install O-RAN equipment in their networks. The Pentagon, civilian research agencies and industry organizations currently maintain a number of 5G testbeds, but a recent survey showed that no existing facility has the capabilities to support current industry and government requirements.

Large-scale, real-time demonstrations and prototypes are necessary next steps to encourage potential federal and carrier customers to have faith in this new technology. In particular, a Defense Department-funded test environment should be accessible to a broad user base with predictable availability to academic and industry partners to conduct their tailored experimentation.

It should also be supported by full-time research experts and operations staff tasked with testbed management and maintenance.

With these kinds of sustained investments in research, development and testing infrastructure, the nation can ensure that it will build the open FutureG ecosystem that will support national needs. ND

Nick Maynard is the co-founder and CEO of US Ignite. Arun Seraphin is the director of NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

Topics: Defense Department, Electronics

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