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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

Ina Fried, author of Login
Aug 11, 2020 - Technology

Using the internet to let the bands play on

A band plays together online using Elk's Aloha technology. Image: Elk

Swedish startup Elk is debuting a hardware-software combination on Tuesday named Aloha that allows musicians and bands separated by distance to perform together online using traditional wired internet connections and, eventually, 5G wireless networks.

Why it matters: Such technology was in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic and has become increasingly needed in an era where many bands are unable to meet in person.

Dave Lawler, author of World
3 mins ago - World

True COVID-19 death toll is double the official numbers, study finds

Expand chart
Data: IHME; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

There have been twice as many deaths from COVID-19 around the world as have been reported, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which analyzed excess mortality and other factors.

The big picture: The U.S. has undercounted by over 300,000 deaths, while the death tolls in India and Mexico — second and third on the list, respectively — are nearly three times the official numbers, according to the analysis.

Top Wall Street cop says report on meme stocks is coming

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Wall Street's top regulator says a report examining meme stock mania will be coming "sometime this summer."

The big picture: It will "detail the range of activities" that came out of the January events," SEC chair Gary Gensler said Thursday at a third congressional hearing held to dissect the GameStop trading phenomenon.