Dish nabs lion’s share of NTIA’s $80m Open RAN grants

Yanitsa Boyadzhieva
By Yanitsa Boyadzhieva

Jan 11, 2024

  • US agency the NTIA allocates $80m to new Open RAN testing initiatives
  • The grants are designed to aid the testing and evaluation of open wireless networks
  • Network operator Dish Wireless is awarded more than half of this round of funding to create an Open RAN testing centre
  • The company claims its multivendor test plan will deliver “unique insights” about the integration of Open RAN technology into brownfield networks

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has awarded $80m in grants for the establishment of Open RAN testing facilities in the country, with 5G network operator Dish Wireless grabbing the lion’s share of the funding.

The aim of the NTIA’s third round of Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund grants is to expand the US’s open and interoperable wireless network test and evaluation (T&E) activities and to make testing “more accessible to the entire wireless ecosystem,” the NTIA explained in a statement, though it highlighted that by this it means an ecosystem of new market players “both in the US and in partner nations”.

The grants come from the $1.5bn allocated to the fund – also known as the Wireless Innovation Fund – by the US government as part of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The aim of the Wireless Innovation Fund is to invest in projects and initiatives that advance the development of open and interoperable wireless networks, which are expected to “drive competition, strengthen global supply chain resilience and lower costs for consumers and network operators,” according to the NTIA. 

The US government is keen to promote and fuel the development of alternative Open RAN technologies so that network operators have multiple, competitive alternative suppliers now that Huawei and ZTE have been deemed a security risk and their technology is being ripped out of US networks and replaced with alternatives (though that scheme is not running quite as hoped, as we reported in our news roundup on Wednesday). 

“As part of President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda, the research and innovation supported by the Wireless Innovation Fund will bolster America’s global technology leadership,” noted US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.

According to Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator, the facilities that will be funded with this new round of grants will help “move open technologies from the lab to the field.”

More specifically, funding will go towards building new T&E facilities and on R&D projects focused on advancing cybersecurity, automation, energy efficiency and improved testing.

Dish wins big

A total of six projects have been awarded funding in this round of grants.  

The clear winner is Dish – now a subsidiary of EchoStar – which has scored $50m, an amount the company described as “historic” in a statement announcing the funding award

It will use the proceeds to establish the Open RAN Center for Integration & Deployment (ORCID) – a facility that will welcome participants to test and validate hardware and software solutions, including radio units (RU), distributed units (DU) and centralised units (CU) against “a complete commercial-grade Open RAN network” deployed by Dish.

ORCID will be located at Dish’s campus in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and will be supported by consortium partners Fujitsu, Mavenir and VMware. Technology partners will include Analog Devices, Arm, Cisco, Dell Technologies, Intel, JMA Wireless, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Samsung.

The facility will combine lab and field testing, and will use a combination of low-, mid- and high-band frequencies, to enable field testing and evaluation. 

Open RAN elements will be evaluated as part of multivendor deployments, rather than testing processes that evaluate a single vendor’s stack.

Dish noted that it has plenty of open, multivendor network experience as that is the chosen deployment mode for its greenfield 5G network, which was launched for commercial services in June 2022 and which currently covers more than 246 million US citizens (more than 70% of the population). That insight and expertise will, it claims, give ORCID “unique insights” about the integration of Open RAN into brownfield networks.

“By leveraging DISH’s experience deploying the world’s first standalone Open RAN 5G network, ORCID will be uniquely positioned to test and evaluate Open RAN interoperability, performance and security from domestic and international vendors”, said Charlie Ergen, co-founder and chairman of EchoStar.

The second-top winner in NTIA’s funding round is Viavi Solutions, which was granted nearly $22m to build a hybrid physical lab infrastructure and cloud-based testing lab-as-a-service (LaaS), named VALOR.

Four other organisations – Virginia Tech, Cirrus360, Northeastern University and Rice University – were each granted around $2m to assist with Open RAN testing activities.

In the previous Wireless Innovation Fund grant rounds, the NTIA awarded about $5.5m to three recipients in August last year, and a further $13m to seven recipients in November 2023. 

- Yanitsa Boyadzhieva, Deputy Editor, TelecomTV

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