May 5, 2020 - Technology

5G's new twist: Build with software instead of hardware

Illustration of a hand holding a phone with animated binary code scrolling by.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the coronavirus pandemic heightens tensions between the U.S. and China, policymakers and industry are promoting a new, software-driven approach to build next-generation cellular networks without using Chinese equipment.

Why it matters: It's a tall order to replace the wireless ecosystem's hardware-powered status quo, but designing 5G more around software could make it cheaper and easier to deploy — and give hawks a way to lock out China's products.

Driving the news: A new coalition of more than 30 tech companies launched Tuesday to advocate federal policies to fund research and development of open and interoperable 5G networks. The White House has promoted the same approach because it wants to see 5G built out in the U.S. and abroad without using network gear made by China's Huawei or pricier alternatives from Nokia or Ericsson.

Details: Founding companies of the Open RAN Policy Coalition include Amazon's AWS, AT&T, Cisco, Facebook, Google, Oracle, Dish Network and Verizon.

  • IBM, another coalition member, called Tuesday for the federal government to advance open 5G policies, including through the use of grants and interest-free loans for companies and cities that deploy the networks with open-source architecture.

How it works: The group and other backers of leaning harder on software hope to see 5G networks handle some functions virtually and to create open standards and technical specifications that would underpin software that could run on any standard hardware.

  • That would depart from the way existing networks work. They use specialized hardware to transmit data at cellular towers and other midpoints between wired internet networks and consumers' smartphones.
  • Chinese telecom giant Huawei is one of the global market leaders in making that equipment and is considerably less expensive than rivals, which include Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung. That's in spite of U.S. attempts to push Huawei out of 5G networks around the world.
  • Many security and foreign policy experts are concerned that Huawei coordinates its business and shares data with China's government, or could do so in the future. Huawei denies those claims.

What they're saying: "Let's break down the barriers and and inject more competition and get more folks in the space," Diane Rinaldo, the former top Commerce Department telecom official who's leading the Open RAN Policy Coalition, told Axios. "That only drives newer, better things coming into the market."

On Capitol Hill, some key lawmakers already want to fund the development of open-software-driven 5G networks.

  • House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone and ranking member Greg Walden introduced bipartisan legislation in April with Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) to authorize up to $750 million in a grant program to promote "open interfaced, standards-based, and interoperable 5G networks."
  • Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, who lead the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced legislation earlier this year that would put $1 billion toward Western alternatives to Huawei, including an open-architecture model for 5G.

The big picture: The White House and the Federal Communications Commission have each signaled interest in the technology.

  • They both planned to host events this spring around virtualized 5G but canceled them due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A group of equipment makers that specialize in Open RAN technology is also pushing the UK to consider that approach, as Axios first reported. The UK has so far ruled that Huawei can be a part of its 5G networks, despite U.S. pressure.

Yes, but: Despite support within the administration, there are also detractors. Attorney General William Barr, a former Verizon executive, called the concept "pie in the sky" in a speech in February that favored investing in Ericsson and Nokia as a counter to Huawei.

History lesson: Facebook and others have been pushing this approach for years, initially mainly as an option for emerging markets. It's gained steam for developed markets amid the U.S.-China tiffs.

What to watch: Dish Network is tasked with building a new nationwide wireless network. It recently signaled its commitment to doing so through the software-based approach, inking a service agreement with network software provider Mavenir.

  • "Mavenir will help us lay the foundation for an innovative software-defined network," Dish's chief network officer Marc Rouanne said in an April statement, maintaining the deal will let the company "source a diverse technology ecosystem, including U.S.-based solution providers."
Go deeper