With China’s Huawei lead­ing the 5G wire­less race, some U.S. of­fi­cials see a tech­nol­ogy used with suc­cess by a com­pany in Idaho as a way to catch up.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEANNE WHALEN jeanne.whalen@wash­post.com Ellen Nakashima in Washington con­trib­uted to this re­port.

lewis­ton, idaho — Chip Dam­ato didn’t think he was pick­ing sides in the U.S.- China tech war when he sent a crew to the roof of the Lewis Clark Ho­tel last year to in­stall new telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment.

The ru­ral wire­less net­work Dam­ato runs needed to cut costs, so he and his team turned to a cheaper ex­per­i­men­tal tech­nol­ogy. After a suc­cess­ful trial at the ho­tel, near an 1805 camp­site of the Lewis and Clark ex­pe­di­tion, In­land Cel­lu­lar added dozens more cell sites to the canyons and hill­tops of the ter­ri­tory it serves.

Now in­ter­est in this new tech­nol­ogy is grow­ing be­yond this rugged edge of Idaho — in part be­cause some U.S. of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers see it as a way to chal­lenge Huawei, the Chi­nese com­pany that has dom­i­nated global sales of equip­ment for wire­less net­works for years.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion calls Huawei gear a se­cu­rity threat and has urged al­lies not to use it in their ul­tra-fast 5G net­works, but a lack of al­ter­na­tives has ham­pered that cam­paign.

Ea­ger to pro­mote other op­tions, law­mak­ers in the House and Se­nate pro­posed bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion this year that would pro­vide at least $750 mil­lion to sup­port the new tech.

“Ev­ery month that the U.S. does noth­ing, Huawei stands poised to be­come the cheap­est, fastest, most ubiq­ui­tous global provider of 5G,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA.), a bill spon­sor who co-founded a tele­com com­pany ear­lier in his ca­reer, said in a state­ment, adding, “We need to move be­yond ob­serv­ing the prob­lem to pro­vid­ing al­ter­na­tives for U.S. and for­eign net­work op­er­a­tors.”

The Pen­tagon, mean­while, con­sid­ers the tech­nol­ogy “the fu­ture” and is en­cour­ag­ing in­dus­try to de­velop it through sev­eral ex­per­i­ments the De­fense De­part­ment is back­ing this year, us­ing part of its $200 mil­lion 5G bud­get, Lt. Col Robert Carver, a spokesman, said by email.

The new ap­proach, known as an open ra­dio ac­cess net­work, or OPENRAN, uses U.S. soft­ware to con­nect net­work hard­ware made by a va­ri­ety of com­pa­nies. Back­ers say the abil­ity to pick and choose hard­ware from dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers makes it cheaper than the com­plete equip­ment-and­soft­ware pack­ages sold by Huawei and its two ma­jor ri­vals, Eric­s­son and Nokia.

More than a dozen big tele­com com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing AT&T, are test­ing OPENRAN tech­nol­ogy in their net­works, ac­cord­ing to AT&T’S chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, An­dre Fuetsch, who chairs an in­dus­try group back­ing the ap­proach.

The Bri­tish mo­bile com­pany O2 will switch on an OPENRAN net­work in south­east Lon­don this year and is ready­ing a wider de­ploy­ment next year. Fel­low Bri­tish car­rier Voda­fone, which has op­er­a­tions around the world, said last fall it is con­sid­er­ing de­ploy­ing OPENRAN tech­nol­ogy in its Euro­pean net­work.

Brendan O’reilly, chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at O2, said tele­com op­er­a­tors need to break their de­pen­dence on the big three equip­ment sup­pli­ers. “Over­re­liance on those ven­dors, no mat­ter where they’re from, is not good for us as an in­dus­try,” he said in an in­ter­view. “Our fu­ture, the U.K. fu­ture, is def­i­nitely OpenRAN,” he added.

Wire­less net­works use cel­lu­lar tow­ers to ex­change voice com­mu­ni­ca­tions and data with mo­bile de­vices via ra­dio waves, al­low­ing de­vices to com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other and with the In­ter­net. The lat­est fifth-gen­er­a­tion, or 5G, net­works offer much faster trans­mis­sion speeds that are ex­pected to con­nect a new era of ma­chines to the In­ter­net, such as self-driv­ing cars and smart ap­pli­ances.

The aim of OPENRAN tech­nol­ogy is to move the com­plex­ity of th­ese net­works to the op­er­at­ing soft­ware, while turn­ing the hard­ware on a cell tower into an in­ter­change­able com­mod­ity. O2’s Lon­don test will use soft­ware from Mavenir, a com­pany in Richard­son, Tex., while the Idaho net­work uses soft­ware from Par­al­lel Wire­less of Nashua, N.H. Al­tiostar of Tewks­bury, Mass., is an­other sup­plier.

Some in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives cau­tion that OPENRAN is in its in­fancy and faces chal­lenges. For one, many tele­com com­pa­nies have al­ready com­mit­ted to build­ing 5G net­works with tra­di­tional equip­ment sup­pli­ers.

And there are still rel­a­tively few com­pa­nies mak­ing an im­por­tant com­po­nent of the new net­works — the ra­dio heads that sit atop cell tow­ers and trade sig­nals with the ra­dios em­bed­ded in mo­bile de­vices. Even one of the new tech­nol­ogy’s big­gest back­ers — Steve Papa, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Par­al­lel Wire­less — says OPENRAN man­u­fac­tur­ers will have a hard time match­ing the en­ergy ef­fi­ciency of Huawei’s ra­dio heads un­less the United States in­vests in bet­ter semi­con­duc­tor tech­nol­ogy.

At least one U.S. of­fi­cial has ex­pressed doubts that OPENRAN is ma­ture enough to chal­lenge Huawei. “This ap­proach is com­pletely untested and would take many years to get off the ground,” At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr, a for­mer tele­com-com­pany lawyer, said in a speech in Fe­bru­ary. To counter Huawei, he said, the United States should try to bol­ster Eric­s­son and Nokia to help them sell more gear.

Dam­ato says he is far re­moved from th­ese geopo­lit­i­cal de­bates. “Lis­ten, we’re iso­lated here. We’re on our own,” he said from his of­fices in Lewis­ton, a pic­turesque city of 33,000 peo­ple near the con­flu­ence of the Snake and Clear­wa­ter rivers.

“We’re not go­ing to be in the mix when it comes to any kind of reg­u­la­tory is­sue or any­thing that hap­pens at the gov­ern­ment level,” he said. “We’ve got to go out and be as re­source­ful as we can.”

Cost was the main rea­son In­land Cel­lu­lar turned to an OPENRAN net­work, Dam­ato said, es­ti­mat­ing the tech­nol­ogy has cut the price of each cell site by 40 per­cent, to about $20,000. That is an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion as tele­com com­pa­nies build 5G sys­tems, which re­quire more cells.

For many years, In­land Cel­lu­lar used Eric­s­son equip­ment in its 3G net­work, but it grew frus­trated by the ex­pense, Dam­ato said. When it needed to up­grade its sys­tem or add a new fea­ture, it had to ac­cept Eric­s­son’s pric­ing be­cause it was locked into Eric­s­son’s pro­pri­etary tech­nol­ogy.

“Any­thing you wanted to do was a huge fi­nan­cial hit on us,” Dam­ato said. “Based on what we were do­ing, we couldn’t sur­vive. . . . So we went out look­ing for al­ter­na­tives.”

Eric­s­son said it does not com­ment on spe­cific cus­tomers but noted it has in­vested “tens of bil­lions of dol­lars” in cel­lu­lar tech­nol­ogy over the years.

In­land Cel­lu­lar broke away from Eric­s­son and be­gan di­ver­si­fy­ing its net­work sev­eral years ago, when it started build­ing a 4G sys­tem.

All wire­less net­works have two main parts — a ra­dio ac­cess net­work made of up cell sites that send and re­ceive sig­nals, and a core of com­puter servers that di­rect much of the sys­tem’s traf­fic.

In­land Cel­lu­lar chose Chicagoare­a com­pany Ex­tenet Sys­tems to sup­ply its 4G core, fa­vor­ing that ven­dor be­cause its tech­nol­ogy would sync with any ra­dio ac­cess net­work. The Idaho tele­com com­pany chose Nokia to sup­ply the ra­dio ac­cess net­work. That setup worked for a while, but when it came time to up­grade or add new fea­tures, In­land Cel­lu­lar had to pay Nokia’s prices, which were high, Dam­ato said.

At a trade show, Dam­ato and his col­leagues learned about Par­al­lel Wire­less, a 500-per­son com­pany that has supplied OPENRAN soft­ware to pi­lot projects in Europe, South Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East. A small car­rier in ru­ral Alaska is also us­ing a Par­al­lel Wire­less sys­tem.

In­land Cel­lu­lar first tested OPENRAN tech­nol­ogy in a lab, then later at the ho­tel, sit­u­at­ing the gear in­side a bel­fry-type struc­ture on the roof.

The com­pact as­sem­blage of metal boxes and wires — about the height of a park­ing me­ter — in­cludes a ra­dio head supplied by Par­al­lel Wire­less and an an­tenna from the Ger­man com­pany Kathrein that helps the ra­dio head send and re­ceive sig­nals. The equip­ment con­nects to a short rack of Dell EMC servers in the base­ment of the ho­tel that run the Par­al­lel Wire­less soft­ware.

The re­sult was im­pres­sive, Dam­ato said: The equip­ment trans­ferred data more ef­fi­ciently than the net­work’s other cell sites and synced well with them. The lower cost per site al­lowed In­land to quickly add more cell sites to rooftops and tele­phone poles in Lewis­ton, im­prov­ing ser­vice in its most heav­ily traf­ficked area.

In­land also used the tech­nol­ogy to ex­pand into new, ru­ral re­gions of Idaho and east­ern Washington, giv­ing it new sources of rev­enue. All of its OPENRAN sites con­nect to the servers in the ho­tel base­ment, which run the ra­dio ac­cess net­work.

“There was ab­so­lutely no way we could con­tinue to grow in the di­rec­tion we needed to go with­out that style of RAN,” Dam­ato said. The sys­tem is cur­rently a 4G net­work but can be con­verted to 5G down the road, through ad­di­tional cell sites and a soft­ware up­grade, he said.

Other small tele­com com­pa­nies across the coun­try, also hop­ing to cut costs, have con­tacted Dam­ato ask­ing about his net­work.

OPENRAN also has im­por­tant sup­port­ers out­side the tele­com in­dus­try — Intel and Face­book, which see the tech­nol­ogy as a way to ex­pand their busi­nesses. Intel makes the semi­con­duc­tors that run the stan­dard com­puter servers used in OPENRAN net­works. And Face­book stands to gain more users around the world if OPENRAN tech­nol­ogy low­ers the cost of wire­less net­works and al­lows more coun­tries to build them.

The com­pa­nies, along with Europe’s big­gest tele­com car­ri­ers, over­see a four-year-old in­dus­try al­liance that is pro­mot­ing tri­als of the tech­nol­ogy. The Tele­com In­fra Project, or TIP, has helped set up test sites in Peru, Tur­key and Mozam­bique.

Face­book said in an emailed state­ment that ex­pand­ing ac­cess to “high-qual­ity” In­ter­net is good for com­mu­ni­ties and “for in­dus­tries and busi­nesses of all kinds, in­clud­ing Face­book.”

Nokia, also a mem­ber of TIP and other in­dus­try groups study­ing the tech­nol­ogy, said it sup­ports more re­search to en­sure OPENRAN tech meets the “se­cu­rity, re­li­a­bil­ity and per­for­mance” needs of tele­com com­pa­nies.

Asked about OPENRAN dur­ing an Oc­to­ber in­vestor call, Eric­s­son chief ex­ec­u­tive Borje Ekholm called it “an area that we are surely go­ing to par­tic­i­pate in.” Huawei said it wel­comes in­no­va­tion but is un­cer­tain “whether th­ese tech­nolo­gies will meet car­ri­ers’ needs.”

OPENRAN sup­port­ers ac­knowl­edge there are not yet enough ra­dio-head man­u­fac­tur­ers for the mar­ket to re­ally flour­ish. KMW, a Korean com­pany with a re­search and de­vel­op­ment unit in the United States, is sup­ply­ing the ra­dio heads used in Par­al­lel Wire­less net­works. Comba Tele­com, a ven­dor based in Hong Kong, says it has seen “sig­nif­i­cant growth” in the OpenRAN mar­ket over the past year. Newedge Sig­nal So­lu­tions of Ayer, Mass., is plan­ning to start sell­ing a ra­dio head for OpenRAN this year, ac­cord­ing to CEO Tom Lam­balot. Aceaxis in Swin­don, Eng­land, says it is also work­ing on one.

TIP, mean­while, an­nounced an ini­tia­tive this year to en­cour­age more ra­dio-head mak­ers into the mar­ket.

Papa, the Par­al­lel Wire­less chief ex­ec­u­tive, said his com­pany has ap­plied to the Pen­tagon for R&D fund­ing to im­prove the semi­con­duc­tors that run ra­dio heads. “Semi­con­duc­tor in­no­va­tion is the only route to make OPENRAN ra­dios bet­ter than Huawei’s,” he said in an in­ter­view.

Al­though tele­com com­pa­nies are hop­ing OPENRAN will turn hard­ware into a com­mod­ity, they need to be will­ing to pay enough to at­tract new ra­dio-head mak­ers to the field, Lam­balot said in an in­ter­view. An OPENRAN ra­dio head can cost be­tween $1,000 and $5,000, de­pend­ing on the fea­tures it in­cludes, he said.

WENKAI MAO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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