FCC Eyes $900M of Open RAN Incentives in 5G Rural Fund

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is pushing for the creation of $900 million worth of financial incentives for incorporating the use of open radio access networks (Open RAN) into wireless networks that will support Federally-subsidized rollouts of 5G services in rural parts of the United States.

The push for Open RAN for wireless networks has been gathering steam in recent years as a successor to proprietary wireless network operating standards that have been the norm for decades, but that also pose challenges to interoperability. The promise of Open RAN is to create nonproprietary systems that allow for easier interoperability between network equipment made by different vendors.

In the latest sign of support for Open RAN from the Federal government, Chairwoman Rosenworcel is making incentives for adoption a key part of the FCC’s proposal to “relaunch” its 5G Fund for Rural America.

The 5G Fund for Rural America was created by the FCC in 2020, with the aim of making up to $9 billion available to subsidize the rollout of 5G mobile broadband services to rural areas that would otherwise not be likely to have access to it based on broadband service data collected by the commission.

The FCC began new rulemaking proceedings last fall seeking to “refresh the record and reignite the Commission’s plan to expand the deployment of 5G service to those rural communities that remain trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

That proceeding sought input on a number of questions including assessing eligibility for funding, defining areas that would receive support, reassessing the budget for the program, and “determining whether and how this proceeding might create an opportunity to support further deployment of Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) technologies.”

Those efforts came to fruition with Rosenworcel’s March 20 call for the agency’s commissioners to vote to approve the relaunch of the 5G Fund and distribute funding with the help of the FCC’s latest mapping of broadband service availability in the U.S. That mapping data, the FCC said, shows more than 14 million homes and businesses that lack mobile 5G coverage.

“To promote the deployment of Open Radio Access Network technology (Open RAN) and its benefits for competition, national security, and supply chain reliability, the 5G Fund would include up to $900 million in incentives for incorporating Open RAN in 5G Fund-supported networks,” the FCC said on March 20.

“For the first time in our history of supporting wireless networks through the universal service system, this agency has comprehensive data about where service is and is not all across the country,” said Chairwoman Rosenworcel.

“This will be the foundation of our plan to expand the 5G service in rural America to where it is needed most – where people live, work and travel,” she said.

In addition to relaunching the 5G fund, the proposal circulated by Rosenworcel on March 20 would make other changes aimed at improving the program. Those include modifying areas available to receive funding, making sure that areas in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that meet certain criteria be included in the funding process, and increasing the Fund’s reserve budget for Tribal areas.

Finally, winners of funding would need to implement cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans as a condition of receiving support, the FCC said.