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When you get on your electronic device, you know that the various parts and pieces are going to talk to each other and work together, allowing you to book a flight, watch a video, or FaceTime a loved one, even when component parts come from different vendors.
“With computers, you can get a central processing unit (CPU) from Intel, storage from Micron Technology, a monitor from Samsung, the graphics processing unit (GPU) from NVIDIA, the operating system from Microsoft, and they all work,” said Vijay K. Shah, assistant professor the College of Engineering and Computing’s Cybersecurity Engineering Department at George Mason University. When it comes to mobile networks, that hasn’t been the case, with a few vendors having a monopoly on equipment – equipment that only talks to other devices from the same vendor.
Enter O-RAN, a “world-wide alliance of mobile operators, vendors, and research and academic institutions with the mission to re-shape Radio Access Networks to be more intelligent, open, virtualized and fully interoperable.” Mason is part of a team, led by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), comprising the newly approved North American Open Testing and Integration Center (OTIC) in the Washington, D.C. area. Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University are the other two teams working on the OTIC.
O-RAN aims to improve the maintenance and lower the cost of mobile networks through vendor competition, avoiding proprietary devices (and thus decreasing risks of relying on a single vendor) and forcing equipment from different suppliers to communicate with each other. Furthermore, a new O-RAN component, called the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), allows integration of artificial intelligence (AI) to mobile networks, and enables monitoring and controlling of various RAN functionalities, such as user scheduling and network traffic-shaping.
Shah predicts this will have major impacts. “O-RAN’s RIC will basically serve as the operating system for the 5G network. When operating systems were developed for computers, it separated hardware from the software, which transformed the entire computer world, and that’s literally what’s happening with 5G now,” he said. “Now we’re software-izing this and once O-RAN is deployed, going from 6G to 7G in the future, for example, will just be a software update.” Reduced costs, improved efficiency, network resiliency, and improved security, and rapid innovation are all areas that will see gains.
The mission of the OTIC is to accelerate U.S. national O-RAN advancement, innovation, and deployment, allowing government and industry partners to strengthen its performance, security, and interoperability.
Shah says that significant funds were included in the recent CHIPS and Science Act under the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund that will invest $1.5 billion in the development of open and interoperable networks. This will help promote vendor neutrality, create a competitive market for small equipment vendors, and address major national security concerns posed by Chinese equipment vendors. Because cloud computing will be a major part of O-RAN, domestic leadership – especially from Silicon Valley – will start to emerge, he said.
The other US-based OTIC locations are in New York City, hosted by Columbia University; Boston, hosted by Northeastern University; Salt Lake City, hosted by the University of Utah; and Iowa, hosted by Iowa State University.