The constant and rapid technological evolution has put forth trends and concepts that now make the telecom and ICT industry quite a diverse and developed sector. Open radio access network, known as Open RAN, is one of the trends that has been shaping the industry. Leading telecom brands and experts are mobilized to further develop this network architecture, however different points of view exist regarding some of its controversial aspects.
The objective of Open RAN is to create a multi-supplier RAN solution that allows for the decoupling of hardware and software with open interfaces between the management plane and base stations, and interfaces between BBUs and RRUs inside base stations. Artificial intelligence and automation are also introduced to achieve network level intelligence.
The development and deployment of Open RAN technologies is driven by industry players such as Telecom Infra Project (TIP) - a global community of companies and organizations, O-RAN Alliance - a world-wide community of mobile network operators, vendors, and research and academic institutions operating in the RAN industry - and governments.
While TIP and O-RAN Alliance are advocating for Open RAN in order to reconstruct the communications and telecommunications industry and reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO), governments are leveraging it to gain control over the communication industry.
Country-level developments: The case of Germany
The European Commission launched a study on 5G supply markets and Open RAN to analyse global 5G supply market trends and set out possible options for the Commission to facilitate the development of a diverse and sustainable 5G ecosystem in the EU.
Peter Stuckmann, head of unit, future connectivity, DG Connect, EU confirmed that they “do not plan to intervene heavily” but rather leave the choice of Open RAN implementation to each country.
“We still see that the swift roll-out of the secured network remains our priority and of cause we don't want any delays here by introducing some additional requirements for implementation,” he added.
Within the European Union, Germany has been active in the 5G space, including some investments made in Open RAN to support 5G deployment. Open RAN is backed by operators and telecom providers that have called upon governments to provide the necessary financial support.
However, Germany’s biggest digital association, Bitkom, published its Open RAN position paper in March 2021. It highlights performance, reliability and energy efficiency gaps at the level of Open RAN systems compared to existing technologies. Bitkom assumes an internationally driven demand and market development that is unlikely to require a legislative mandate.
Furthermore, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) considers that Germany’s investment in Open RAN will not solve its 5G problem. According to the Council, Open RAN is still an unproven concept incapable of solving the world’s vendor diversity problem. It considers that European policymakers are falling victim to a degree of economic statecraft. However, a global turn towards Open RAN would allow US tech companies to carve out and dominate a space in the telecoms market through specialized production of individual components designed for use in a disaggregated system. Accordingly, it is in Washington’s best interest for Open RAN to be the future of 5G.
Despite the United States’ support, Open RAN may be unable to compete with traditional networks in security performance and energy consumption. This may also mean that Open RAN networks are more vulnerable to traditional security threats. Beyond these security concerns, constructing a piecemeal network can reduce performance and increase energy usage.
The controversy of Open RAN
Industry experts share different points of view when it comes to Open RAN which is causing controversy and raising several questions, including security and political influence.
One of the common opinions considers that Open RAN is not another 5G standard, but an implementation architecture and technology. In fact, the 3GPP defines architecture and interfaces but doesn’t provide implementation details. Operators are the ones who choose solutions based on market requirement and competition, whereas vendors innovate based on an open market and fair competition environment.
Another important impact of Open RAN is the fact that software and hardware decoupling will turn the industry to a WINTEL model which will result in a high level domination. A multi-supplier model doesn’t necessarily create an open ecosystem, but can rather hamper innovation.
Open RAN players are seeing a great opportunity in massive MIMO, however, some argue that massive MIMO is Open RAN Achilles heel. Yago Tenorio, head of Vodafone network strategy stated for example that “Massive MIMO is a difficult thing for Open RAN to crack”, whereas according to Steve Papa, CEO, Parallel Wireless, “The place you need to put the money in is the semiconductor innovation and signal processing, putting it into virtualization isn’t going to change that problem”.
Another major setback for Open RAN is claims that the TCO saving has not been proved and that core network virtualization history proves that multi-vendor integration increases the system complexity.
Echoing this point of view, T-Mobile US CTO Neville Ray publicly said, “Today, I buy a solution from an Ericsson or a Nokia or a Samsung; it's warrantied. I have one neck to choke. If something goes wrong, I know where to go. In an O-RAN environment, you have to do a lot more heavy lifting as the operator," he said. "O-RAN for me is interesting at this point in time, but there's a host of unanswered questions around IP [intellectual property], around R&D, around system integration.”
“Who's ultimately responsible for all of the integration? And whose neck do you choke when things go wrong? Your own. So that's a lot to work through,” he added.
Open RAN security considerations
Concerns were expressed regarding the level of security in an Open RAN architecture. More security risks are brought about as a result of the open interfaces existing at the level of Open RAN. The use of open source operating systems also increases the risk of attacks. Moreover, the decoupling of software and hardware requires a complete trust chain from bottom to top, especially that hardware, operating systems and application software can come from different vendors.
However, according to a white paper by Altiostar, Fujitsu, Mavenir and Red Hat, by adopting a zero-trust security framework, an Open RAN architecture provides a path to a more secure open networks and open interfaces over what exists today. Despite misconceptions, open interfaces, defined in the O-RAN technical specifications, provide increased independent visibility and the opportunity for an overall enhanced and more secure system.
A zero trust architecture (ZTA) is a cybersecurity architecture that is based on zero trust principles and designed to prevent data breaches and limit internal lateral movement. In this new paradigm, an enterprise must assume no implicit trust and continually analyze and evaluate the risks to its assets and business functions and then enact protections to mitigate these risks.
Different industry opinions circle around the topic of Open RAN, but what is certain is that it is a transformative technology that needs to be leveraged in the correct framework and conditions in order to yield the best outcomes.