The O-RAN Alliance has expanded the list of technical requirements that open link network systems (Open RAN) must meet, especially with regard to their intrinsic safety and energy efficiency, although it also focuses on intelligence, orchestration , transport and infrastructure of the cloud of radio signals. O-RAN Alliance is the organization that promotes the development of open and interoperable link networks, regardless of the manufacturer, and which is led by the five main European operators. The introduction of 40 new specifications since last November is considered a considerable advance to achieve the ambitious objectives proposed, although no timetable for their realization or commitments with companies to carry them out has been specified.
The document with the new specifications, called Open RAN Technical Priorities Release 2, has been accessible since last week on the O-RAN Alliance site and, together with the set of documents published in June last year, completes the first phase of the requirements technicians of the Open RAN link networks, with “open intelligence”. This second version of the technical specifications, like the first, is the result of the work carried out within the framework of the memorandum on Open RAN and signed by the European operators Deutsche Telekom, Orange, TIM, Vodafone and Telefónica on January 18, 2021. Compliance with these specifications is considered to be the minimum for the Open RAN development plan to be viable.
The first version (Release 1) in June focused on the main scenarios and technical requirements of each functional block of a multivendor and disaggregated trunk network (RAN); that is, that operators could choose components, programs and equipment from different hardware and software manufacturers when building their networks. This second version, which is dated last March, builds on and extends the first version and includes the intelligence, orchestration, transport, and cloud infrastructure of radio signal systems, with the goal of “ promote a fully automated and interoperable Open RAN system”.
The O-RAN Alliance has developed a comprehensive set of “open intelligence” network specifications, including security and energy efficiency.
The O-RAN Alliance has developed a comprehensive set of aThe overall goal of this set of specifications is to “promote rapid development of competitive Open RAN solutions in Europe, as well as other regions, and ultimately accelerate global adoption of the technology”. These requirements are expected to evolve over time as Open RAN standardization progresses and the commercial development of Open RAN solutions, its proponents say on their O-RAN Alliance site.
Energy efficiency and security of open networks, priority issues
The energy efficiency aspects of the networks, as well as the objective of having sustainable Open RAN deployments, have been particularly highlighted in this second version of the specifications. “Open RAN networks are expected to be gradually more energy efficient than traditional RAN, benefiting from concepts such as migration to the information cloud, the disaggregation of the different components and native artificial intelligence”, add their promoters.
Along with the technical requirements, a specific document on the intrinsic security of the Open RAN has also been published, which is the result of the experts in security of the telecommunications networks of the five European operators that signed the Open RAN memorandum. The document covers all security aspects within Open RAN technology, describing the risk analyzes and the remedies proposed within the O-RAN Alliance to build a fully effective security architecture for these open networks.
Apart from the new specifications and these two documents on safety and energy efficiency, technical priority notes have been published to summarize the priorities and for a better understanding of the content of the published technical specifications. All aspects have been reviewed, it is assured in a statement but, in particular, the energy efficiency requirements and the recent decisions and evolutions of the O-RAN Alliance are specified, as well as the data transport requirements, the infrastructure in the cloud and its integration with the networks and with the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), the “brain” of the link networks. “open intelligence” network specifications, including security and energy efficiency
The Open RAN ecosystem is already very broad and does not stop growing, but voices are already beginning to be raised calling for a consolidation to avoid the dispersion of objectives
This first and second version of the technical requirements are combined to form an Open RAN ecosystem that develops and builds the products that operators need to have highly competitive networks that meet the high performance, security, energy efficiency, flexibility and price requirements. that operators need and users demand.
The European operators that are part of the O-RAN Alliance already urged the European authorities in November 2021 to take immediate measures to stimulate the open RAN sector, in order to ensure that the European continent is not left behind compared to America. North and Asia. The effective security of networks is a priority issue, especially after the US Administration vetoed Huawei two years ago because it considered that its equipment could facilitate espionage, without providing any evidence, an accusation that Huawei has always categorically denied and that He assures that it is a private company that is not under the orders of the Chinese Party.
The US ban on Huawei’s telecom network equipment also extended to all components and chips built with US proprietary equipment and software, contributing to the mess in supply of telecom equipment and supply of all types of chips. , because Huawei hoarded products in view of the situation and several countries, especially Great Britain and Australia, also passed laws so that their networks did not have Huawei telecommunications equipment in the medium term and the United States pressured European operators to do the same . Then came the pandemic and the supply of chips became much more complicated.
The effective security of 5G networks, still on the wing
The problem of the security of telecommunications network equipment continues without being resolved effectively, with ambiguities on the part of the European Commission and the regulatory bodies of European countries, among others. The security of “open” networks, on the other hand, is more pressing and complex by its very nature, since it is more difficult to limit the responsibility for the intrinsic security of each of the links in the open ecosystem, as there is no provider principal with proprietary equipment, as is now the case with those of Ericsson, Nokia or Huawei, which monopolize and control nearly 80% of the world’s supplies.
When the 5G specifications were created within the 3GPP, its promoters assured that the regulation contemplated, from its initial genesis, a very effective security of the 5G networks and that it has been reinforced later, while with the Open RAN networks this principle Intrinsic safety has not been taken into account since its inception, as suggested for example by Ericsson. The security specifications now proposed by the O-RAN Alliance come to cover this problem.
The other burning issue for a long time, and which has been aggravated by the emergency posed by climate change, is that of energy efficiency. 5G networks are much more energy efficient per transmitted data than 4G and will be much more so when the technology matures in the coming years and 5G networks are in the majority. But common sense indicates, at least in theory, that a “closed” network equipment will always be more efficient than an “open” one, because its energy consumption will be more controllable if the chips and components are built to suit the needs. In recent months, Ericsson and Nokia have introduced and promoted new versions of 5G network equipment that are much lighter and more efficient than the previous ones from a year ago, while the “open” network equipment is still in the testing phase.
The challenge facing “open” network equipment in terms of security and energy efficiency, apart from optimizing performance and its cost and price, is important. For this reason, the new specifications proposed by the O-RAN Alliance are crucial for the future of open link networks. The O-RAN Alliance plans to organize two important meetings (Plugfest) this 2022 for its member companies and institutions of all kinds.
The organization of these two Plugfests “will better accommodate the new work carried out on the integration and commercialization of O-RAN solutions”, assures the O-RAN Alliance. Over the past year, the O-RAN Alliance has expanded its contacts with other industry and standards development organizations. As an example, cites the alliance, the first O-RAN specification (O-RAN Fronthaul Control, User and Synchronization Plane) has been submitted for potential adoption by the mobile standards group of the ETSI technical committee, through the so-called ETSI PAS, and it is planned to submit additional O-RAN specifications to ETSI in the future, says the O-RAN Alliance. Today, the O-RAN Alliance is a global community, bringing together more than 300 mobile operators, vendors, and academic and research institutions operating in the access network (RAN) industry.
Open RAN highly promoted at MWC Barcelona
At the end of February edition of the MWC Barcelona, the topic of open networks was highly promoted and was discussed in several public meetings of the congress, apart from the private meetings. In reality, the O-RAN Alliance is just one of four major organizations promoting the development of open telecommunications network solutions. The other three are the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), whose initial promoter was Facebook, now Meta, and the Open Network Foundation (ONF) and Small Cell Forum, as seen in the graphic below from Radisys shown in a presentation at MWC, alongside to additional organizations.
The open network ecosystem is also growing in number, made up of operators, system integrators, software developers, radio cell developers, and hardware component and system developers, as can be seen in the graph below of the company Comba Telecom, a manufacturer of cells. Jan Berglund, director of products and solutions at Comba, wonders in the transparency itself if this ecosystem is really healthy and if there is an adequate solution. The question, for Berglund, is whether this large ecosystem is a challenge and whether he should change the way it works to achieve a mature business model. And he wondered at the MWC if there shouldn’t be a big consolidation process, made up of just one or two big groups.
Another issue of concern is that today’s large network equipment manufacturers do not seem to be very interested in promoting Open RAN. Only Nokia, among the big players, appears in the bottom list of top developers. NEC and Samsung are important and have a lot of interest in developing Open RAN networks, because it would allow them to enter this closed market more decisively. The other promoters, especially Parallel Wireless and Mavenir, were very active at MWC, although their companies are very small. Tech Mahindra can also play an important role, although it is very limited to India, as are the Americans IBM and Dell, which are very interested in gaining a foothold in the 5G market.
That Huawei, or ZTE, the other big Chinese equipment manufacturer, do not want to know anything about Open RAN at the moment, is understandable, but the absence of Ericsson since it moved away from the O-RAN Alliance and TIP because it did not want to be involved in judicial disputes if he collaborated with Chinese companies (although the statutes were reformed so that he would return) is more worrying. Ericsson’s stated position is that when the Open RAN system specifications are finalized and tested, the company will be among the first to offer them to operators at a competitive price. A fancy way of saying that they won’t put in wheelbarrows but they won’t put in a runway either.
Huawei’s absence from the Open RAN consortia, while perfectly understandable, is more worrying, because the Chinese company, along with Nokia and Ericsson, owns an impressive portfolio of 5G essential and non-essential patents. Although these patents are freely available (upon reasonable payment of the corresponding licenses) to the members of the 3GPP consortium, they do not necessarily have to assign them to external organizations, such as TIP, if they have not given their explicit agreement, as is the case with Huawei.
In any case, it is still a bit early to talk about these patent issues, because there are many more pressing issues to be resolved. At MWC, it became clear that there is a lot of industry interest in Open RAN, whatever its final form, but also that the topic is still in its infancy, even though some companies and operators launch various “open” networks. ” test.
At the moment, the company that is furthest along in developing Open RAN seems to be NTT DoCoMo. Seizo Onode, responsible for the standardization strategy of the Japanese NTT and fellow of NTT DoCoMo, assured at the MWC that DoCoMo has successfully deployed open networks in a multi-vendor environment, although he clarified that this does not necessarily mean that they work from a global market point of view, because only DoCoMo deploys standardized open networks and thus economies of scale cannot be achieved.
“The implementation and deployment of networks at a global level is essential” to achieve the desired success, as well as “collaboration and cooperation between the different members of the open RAN ecosystem”, concluded Onode in one of his face-to-face presentations at the MWC. The manager recalled that NTT DoCoMo is one of the five founding members of the O-RAN Alliance, along with AT&T, China Mobile, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom, in February 2018. In March 2019 the alliance had 74 members, in October 2020 237 and last February it reached 321 members (31 operators and 290 collaborators).
He also reminded that a virtualized network does not mean that it is open. Virtualization, Onode clarified, can be a means to achieve an open network, but it is not an end in itself, nor does the use of standardized components or general-purpose processors mean lower costs or be the most optimal for workloads. high data processing. He also highlighted that “even with the disaggregation between hardware and software, the interface between them is not necessarily open.”
These are details that, although they are well known to experts on the subject, highlight how complex the subject of open networks is and that many years of work and development will be required to make them technically and commercially viable. It is presumable that, with the specifications now made public by the five European European operators, the issue will be clarified a little more, in the event that these recommendations are followed, and soon achieved in practice.