Why ‘open’ 5G tech is vital for Brazil’s future

Open and interoperable fifth-generation (5G) telecommunications networks in Brazil would deliver fast, secure internet, transforming the country’s industries and economy, experts say.

Brazil is upgrading to 5G wireless internet and plans to extend the cutting-edge service to underserved areas, including the Amazon. 5G networks have the potential to dramatically boost industries across South America, increase farmers’ productivity and improve the delivery of health care and education and other services to remote areas.

How Brazil will build its 5G network is not yet decided. Ahead of Brazil’s 5G spectrum auction November 4, Brazilian telecommunications companies are weighing whether to adopt legacy closed systems or newer “open” networks. Under the current closed model, a few large companies using proprietary equipment provide the cell towers, base stations, core computers and software that make up a 5G system — known as the Radio Access Network (RAN).

In contrast, with Open RAN, vendors agree to common standards that allow multiple suppliers to provide compatible components. The approach combines the benefits of ultra-fast 5G networks with new opportunities for Brazilian companies to supply network components, bringing jobs and spurring economic growth. Open RAN also would limit security risks associated with some existing 5G network providers.

Graphic with photos of communication towers and text comparing traditional 5G with Open RAN 5G (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

The Brazilian telecom industry group, Open RAN do Brasil, said in a May 10 letter to the country’s telecom regulators that Open RAN is necessary to ensure an innovative, “competitive and secure ecosystem” for Brazil’s 5G development.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition, a Washington-based industry group with a local chapter in Brazil founded earlier this year, says Open RAN would allow new companies to more easily enter the multibillion-dollar 5G market by specializing in single network components.

Open RAN’s interoperability allows a variety of vendors to provide software, components, maintenance and oversight, which increases competition, spurs innovation, improves transparency and drives down prices. It also means equipment from an unreliable vendor can be more easily replaced.

Companies already deploy Open Ran networks in major markets around the world and conduct advanced pilot programs in Latin America, including Argentina and Colombia. Open RAN technology now could put Brazil at the forefront of 5G innovation in the region.

Another benefit of Open RAN is increased security. Security is vital given risks posed by Huawei and other telecom vendors based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law requires companies based in the PRC to “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work” upon request. This effectively gives the PRC the ability to control networks built by PRC-based companies, according to telecom industry experts. This could allow the PRC to potentially access data on networks in other countries.

The United States designated Huawei a national security risk and barred the company from U.S. telecom networks. Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan are among the other countries taking similar steps.

The Open RAN approach is also consistent with U.S. and partner nations’ efforts to ensure technological advances reflect democratic values. Officials from the United States, India, Japan and Australia support adoption of Open RAN 5G through their partnership called the Quad.

The United States supports efforts to deploy fast, reliable and secure 5G infrastructure in Brazil.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with President Jair Bolsonaro and other Brazilian government and industry officials August 5 to address global issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and digital security.

“As the hemisphere’s two largest democracies, the United States and Brazil have a stake in each other’s success,” Sullivan said.

After the trip, U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez told reporters that Brazil’s planned investments in 5G and other emerging technologies could transform the country’s economy. He backed Open RAN as the best approach for both Brazil and Argentina.

“They need digital infrastructure that is secure, resilient, cost effective, and that fosters new domestic players, as Open RAN technologies promised to do” for 5G, Gonzalez said August 9.