The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) is holding its annual convention next week as an in-person event in Phoenix. The organizers say they have a “traffic-flow” process that will take visitors past the exhibitor booths in an organized fashion to help people keep a safe distance. And they’ve implemented other policies to help prevent the spread of Covid.
The hottest topic at the event is likely to be the government’s $1.9 billion program to rip and replace Huawei gear from networks. And related to that, the second hottest topic is likely to be: will smaller wireless carriers opt to use open radio access network (RAN) technology, or will they go with the traditional vendors: Ericsson and Nokia?
Steve Berry, president and CEO of the CCA, said the conference will present all angles of the open RAN discussion. High-profile proponents of open RAN such as Rakuten, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless will be speaking at the conference, as well as executives from Nokia and Ericsson.
“We have a lot of members now that are O-RAN focused members,” said Berry. “Then Nokia and Ericsson are saying they also have O-RAN capabilities and are working with customers.”
Berry said, “We have maybe 15 or so members that have clearly identified covered equipment in their networks.” He expects wireline network providers will also apply for the funds.
Security and open RAN
At the same time as carriers are preparing to apply for rip-and-replace funds, they must also decide what technology they’ll use moving forward.
Undoubtedly, the participants at the CCA conference will touch on the open RAN drama of the past couple of weeks, in which Nokia briefly stopped participating in the O-RAN Alliance. Nokia had concerns because certain Chinese companies involved in the O-RAN Alliance were also on the U.S. government’s entity list.
This week, the O-RAN Alliance said changes were made to participation documents and procedures to address the issues, and Nokia resumed its work with the alliance.
But this uncertainty about open RAN comes at an inopportune time because the FCC has set tight deadlines for carriers to apply for rip-and-replace funds. Acting FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel has announced a target date of October 29, 2021 to open the reimbursement program filing window.
Both Nokia and the CCA filed comments with the FCC, requesting a blanket six-month extension of time, noting that many applicants will have difficulty adhering to a one-year deadline for removal and replacement because under normal circumstances the process would take approximately one to three years.
But the FCC declined to give a general six-month extension, saying, “We find it premature to consider a general extension before the Reimbursement Program is even launched and any removal, replacement and disposal terms are established.”
“If you’re a carrier with a legacy network you have to figure out the best steps to most efficiently and effectively modify your network,” said Berry. “You could do an O-RAN core or one that’s compatible with O-RAN.”
In addition to the short timelines to rip and replace Huawei equipment, the members of the CCA are also facing the same staffing shortages as many other industries in the U.S.
“We’re already experiencing a manpower shortfall,” said Berry. “Many of our carriers doing rip and replace have set up their actual crews to help them more than one and a half years ago.”
He also noted the supply-chain shortage of fiber. “I think we’re going to have a real problem. The average time frame for fiber deployments in rural areas is from five to 10 years.”
He said carriers in CCA have already been complaining about exorbitantly long wait-times to get permits in rural areas. A huge chunk of the U.S.’s rural land mass is controlled by government agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.