The future of open link networks (Open RAN) should be clearer by the end of this year that now begins and its potential is proven, as multiple networks have been installed in real situations, beyond the phase of provisional specifications and purely testing. where they are now. There is no unanimity: some operators insist on their need, while asking for public aid, while various organizations are suspicious of their safety. Even the United States, which thought that with Open RAN it could reduce China’s influence on 5G, sees that it will not be possible.
The development of open, unbundled and interoperable link networks (generically called Open RAN) has been one of the topics that has attracted the most attention in 2021. Initially, these networks were promoted so that operators had a more functional and economical alternative the virtual monopoly exercised by the main telecommunications network equipment manufacturers, especially Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia and, to a much lesser extent, ZTE, Samsung and NTT DoCoMo. In the last weeks of 2021, the situation has become polarized: various voices critical of its development have emerged, while its main European promoters have insisted on its need and have required public support to accelerate its implementation.
Facebook launched the open link network project in 2016, through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). In February 2018, the O-RAN Alliance, a company based in Germany, was created with five founding members (AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange) who endorsed and expanded the TIP project and thus decisively boosted the third quarter of 2018, coinciding with the MWC in Shanghai. A totally international project in its beginnings.
In 2022 Open RAN comes the moment of truth to demonstrate its qualities and be a real and unified alternative to proprietary RAN networks in the middle of this decade
The stated mission of the O-RAN Alliance is “to reorient the RAN industry towards smarter, more open, virtualized and fully interoperable mobile networks.” The new O-RAN standards, as can be read on their website, “would allow a more vibrant and competitive supplier ecosystem, with faster innovation that would improve the user experience.” At the same time, “O-RAN-based mobile networks would increase the efficiency of link network (RAN) deployments and mobile operator operations.”
In the last three years, the project activity of creating Open RAN networks has continued with the incorporation of multiple partners and alliances, testing and definition of the architecture, as recently highlighted by Enrique Blanco, technology director of the Telefónica group, in a virtual conference on the status of the project. As can be seen from the graph below, there was a strong momentum at the Barcelona WMC in 2019, just before the commercial rollouts of 5G began, with the presentation of a white paper on open access architectures and several demos.
Telefónica, although it was not a founding member, joined the Open RAN project very actively shortly after and on January 18, now a year ago, signed, together with the large European operators Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Vodafone, a memorandum to promote the rapid development of global and non-fragmented networks, with a commitment to deploy them in their national networks as soon as they become available.
In mid-November, perhaps because they considered that their memorandum had not had much echo in Brussels, the same European operators, plus the Italian TIM, published a joint statement urging the European Union to contribute to the construction of the Open RAN ecosystem. Previously, the operators had insistently demanded from Brussels a regulation of the telecommunications networks that is more flexible and more in line with the very competitive market that exists in Europe, where there are more than one hundred operators, not counting the virtual ones, who are waging a fierce tariff battle to attract or retain broadband and mobile phone customers.
Geopolitics comes into play
While the O-RAN Alliance project was being developed, in the United States the Donald Trump Administration imposed a draconian veto on Huawei, then and now the world’s leading manufacturer of link networks and telecommunications transport and trunk equipment and networks. The highest levels of all US diplomacy were put in place for European and global regulators to also ban the installation of Huawei equipment in their networks and that the current tenant of the White House, Joe Biden, has maintained.
It was also prohibited that Huawei could buy semiconductors manufactured or patented by US companies, which has meant that in 2021 Huawei’s turnover has fallen for the first time, no less than 28.8%, as the Chinese company has just communicated, and has been left at 634 billion yuan ($ 100 billion). In 2020, despite the sanctions, Huawei’s turnover managed to grow 3.8%. According to Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping, the telecommunications equipment business is stable and enterprise networks are enjoying strong growth, but he does not hide that the future presents many challenges. The collapse in billing has been due, basically, to its terminal division, which has been reduced to a minimum by not buying components and the transfer of Honor smartphones.
In reality, the initial project of the O-RAN Alliance did not necessarily go against Huawei but affected all RAN manufacturers, without distinction of nationalities, to create a more open ecosystem and not depend on a virtual monopoly, as they say. in the objectives of the alliance expressed above. But the United States saw in the Open RAN project a golden opportunity to not only attack Huawei, and incidentally the entire Chinese telecommunications and technology industry, but also to try to create a genuinely American telecommunications equipment industry or, at least , not so dependent on companies from Europe and Asia. Because they had realized, with the introduction of 5G, that their position in this strategic market was very weak (not in terminals and in the cloud, but in the manufacture of equipment and their patents).
The competitive situation of open link networks, as is the case with other aspects of telecommunications networks, is becoming polarized, with great defenders and detractors
In this way, Open RAN went from being an essentially technological and market-opening project to taking on a clearly geopolitical dimension, with the intention of the United States to further influence the development of not only link networks but also 5G networks. and in the future 6G. The Open RAN Policy Coalition, based in the United States, was founded for this political rather than technological purpose and with the firm will that telecommunications networks be totally secure and that China, through its companies that dominate a large part of the market 4G and 5G and the development of their standards, did not carry as much weight in the future.
The key, in the hands of European and Asian manufacturers
Over the months, the United States Government has seen that its wishes to be someone else in 5G, and with its eyes set on 6G, were more difficult to fulfill than it seemed at first, a constant that Joe Biden has experimented in his first year in office in other areas as well. To begin with, around 30% of the members of the O-RAN Alliance are from China, and with greater weight than the United States members have in the international alliance, although the latter are more in number of companies. And the portfolio of essential patents of European and Asian companies in 5G is overwhelming, as well as its key decision-making body, the 3GPP.
China Mobile, for example, the world’s largest mobile operator, is a founding member of the O-RAN Alliance and has the right to veto many of its decisions, as does the other four founding members on its Board of Directors (AT&T , Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange). There are another ten members on the Council, who are not permanent but elected every two years and who, by statute, must be operators (now they are Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone from Europe and Verizon and Dish from the United States; the rest are Asian).
The O-RAN Alliance is part of the main equipment manufacturers as collaborators in the creation of specifications, such as Nokia and Ericsson, but not Huawei, which has steadfastly refused to participate. A few months ago, Nokia and Ericsson left the alliance, fearing legal disputes from the United States for collaborating with Chinese members. In the end, the bylaws were fixed and Nokia has returned to the alliance, but the constant meddling of the United States is a problem, as many of the essential patents of the 3GPP 5G standards (which are not simple specifications like those of O -RAN Alliance) are from Chinese companies, especially Huawei, or Nokia and Ericsson.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Abigail Spanberger, who joined the CIA in counterterrorism efforts in 2006, is deeply concerned about China’s involvement in Open RAN and raised last April, in a government amendment to the official report on RAN technology The need for the United States to lead the bodies that fix this technology, as well as the problems posed by the fact that there are many Chinese members in the O-RAN Alliance and that some are on the Entity List, the “black list” of their Government. . She recommends the senator in the amendment that the Secretary of State of the United States periodically report on the security implications posed by the use of this technology, among other issues.
Open RAN security, a touchstone
The 2019 MWC, which served to announce with great fanfare the benefits of the imminent 5G, one aspect that was most influenced was the intrinsic security provided by this telecommunications technology. The security, privacy and integrity of 5G communications was an issue, it was asserted, posed as crucial from the earliest developments of 5G to its subsequent success. No efforts were made to achieve this, as its promoters had emphasized on previous occasions, but they wanted to give a lot of relevance at the 2019 MWC.
In reality, when the United States insists on the lack of security of Huawei’s 5G equipment, and which the Chinese company has always categorically denied, it never provides any evidence to support this opinion. It limits itself to saying that the company is under the command of the Chinese government and that it is susceptible to spying on other countries with its technology, if it has not already done so.
At the end of November, the BSI (German acronym for the Federal Office for Information Security) published an 86-page analysis on the risks of Open-RAN.The report is currently only in German but the agency plans to publish it in English this January.
The BSI report has been commissioned and produced by Secunet, a respected private security agency, and it ensures that its results have not been influenced, but have acted entirely independently. Four basic aspects are analyzed: confidentiality, integrity, traceability, availability and privacy of the data. And from three different angles: the user of the network, the operator and the State, as guarantor of the common interest.
Secunet covers its back, stating that it is very difficult to make an exhaustive analysis of the security risks posed by O-RAN technology because it is still in a very incipient phase of development, but it has already found “medium and high security risks that emanate from the multiplicity of interfaces and components specified by the O-RAN Alliance ”. Secunet warns that the current development process of the O-RAN specifications are not guided by the security and privacy paradigm, at the design level and by default, which does exist in the international 5G standards approved by the 3GPP. Secunet recommends, already in the press release of the report, to include improvements in the security of the regulations made by the O-RAN Alliance (which cannot create international specifications such as 3GPP).
Open RAN, less secure and more expensive
Florian Müller, a leading technology patent expert who writes the blog fosspatents, considers Securnet’s risk analysis reliable and accurate when it highlights the lack of security of the O-RAN Alliance standards. Müller, however, already lashed out at them on September 17 when he wrote on his blog that licensing costs will be higher with Open RAN. The arguments that Müller uses to say that Open RAN networks will be more expensive than traditional networks are fairly straightforward and compelling. Part of the fact that the Open-RAN specifications are based on and add to the 3GPP standards, the licenses of which are paid for. Therefore, you will not save a penny on patents, and also Open RAN equipment manufacturers will have to pay for additional patents generated by the Open-RAN Alliance, which they are not supposed to give away for free.
The promoters of Open RANs argue that costs will be saved with the use of open components and economies of scale. However, the most optimistic market studies assure that the world market share of Open RAN equipment will be 10% in 2025, a very low figure that surprises Müller if Open RAN really is so promising. The global RAN market will touch 100 billion dollars this year and will not grow much more in the coming years, with which its manufacturers will have to distribute about 10 billion dollars and it is foreseeable that those now more established, such as Nokia and Ericsson but also Samsung and NTT DoCoMo, and perhaps even the Chinese, will get most of this “open” network market. New providers, such as Altiostar (owned by Japan’s Rakuten), Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, will have to adjust their costs considerably to compete with large manufacturers, who do have economies of scale and greater experience in dealing with operators around the world. some for more than a century.
In another article of November 11, Müller echoes an opinion piece published by Torsten Gerpott, university professor of strategic telecommunications management at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who considers that Open RAN is more of a geopolitical game than a technological concept. solid. For Gerpott, it is clear that a set of open interfaces does not make a complete network infrastructure open: if multiple black boxes are connected in an open systems network, it ultimately depends on who made the black boxes and the integrator of the network. system, a dependency similar to the one operators now have on proprietary RANs. For operators, managing this greater variety of link networks, be they more open or closed, will be much more complex and, in addition, they will have to deal with more manufacturers, without any of them being responsible for the global operation of the networks, because they will cover a part, contrary to what happens now with proprietary systems.
Another aspect that is overlooked is power consumption: Ericsson and Nokia, for example, are investing heavily in making their computers lighter and consume less power. As far as is known, O-RAN systems are largely based on components designed and manufactured by Intel, based on the x86 architecture. This processor architecture has proven in its 50 years of existence that it is very flexible, but at the cost of consuming much more energy than, for example, ARM-based systems, which are in their initial development in telecommunications equipment. All smartphones are powered by ARM processors, but the terminal market is completely different from that of networks.
Europe would lose influence with Open RAN
Another aspect that has drawn the attention of experts is the great interest of European operators in Open RAN systems and their request that the European Union help them build the open ecosystem. The telecommunications equipment market is one of the few in which European manufacturers are world leaders, mainly Ericsson and Nokia but also other smaller ones. Furthermore, European operators have always maintained privileged ties with these manufacturers and collaborating to promote another competitor would only complicate matters. Much more if the European Union provides funds to laminate the competitiveness of European manufacturers.
The European Union’s report on the risk analysis of Open RAN systems and, in general, the vulnerability that current networks may have with proprietary systems, especially with those of Huawei, is awaited with interest. If in the end it is considered that the current proprietary systems are not sufficiently robust and secure, be they from Huawei, ZTE or any other supplier, the logic dictates that disaggregated systems will be less so, because there will be more entry ways for malicious software.
And for operators it is presumed that it is easier to manage networks with two or three integrated providers, as is happening now, than with a broader ecosystem and necessarily more complex networks. There is also the thorny issue of deciding what is the degree of security of Huawei (or ZTE) 5G networks and, in the case that it is not much, demonstrating that those of other equipment manufacturers are, or, at least they are safer than the Chinese ones.
European operators, especially Vodafone and Telefónica, plan to install Open RAN networks throughout this year in real environments, outside of their newly launched laboratories, and then expand them in 2013 and subsequent years. Enrique Blanco, from Telefónica, has said on several occasions that between 2022 and 2025 half of Telefónica’s new network supplies could be Open RAN and that in 2022 pilot tests and commercial deployments will begin in the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain with Altiostar teams. Vodafone and Orange have also placed high hopes on Open RAN, although less than Deutsche Telekom (perhaps because their 5G networks depend largely on Huawei equipment, being highly shared with 4G) and much less BT, the most skeptical of the greats. European operators.
Another problem when talking about Open RAN is that it is a very imprecise term. Many manufacturers, especially Samsung and NTT DoComo, have been offering “open” systems for months, some virtual and others based on the cloud, as is also the case with the Japanese company Rakuten, which has come to fully control the most active company in Open RAN , Altiostar. Many experts fear that in the end open systems will proliferate so much that in practice they are more closed than the current ones genuinely based on the 3GPP 5G standards (although there are unspecified aspects of what causes each manufacturer to adopt their solution and become RAN “proprietary”.
The big consultants, meanwhile, are not wet about the future that holds Open RAN. In a recent report carried out by CCS Insight, sponsored by Interdigital, highlights the great interest that Open RAN has aroused in the last year and a half in the mobile telephony industry but that it still has a long way to go to achieve a leadership role, as highlighted in the title of the report itself. The consulting firm ABI Research has also written a report, paid in this case by TIP, on the production of Open RAN
Of course, this is an interesting initiative that, probably, the operators that promoted it more than three years ago thought that it would not take so long to be technically ready or that it would become so politicized. In any case, in this year 2022 comes the moment of truth to demonstrate its qualities and that it can be a full reality in the middle of this decade. Or earlier if possible, because 5G Advanced is just around the corner and there is already a lot of talk about 6G. Japan and South Korea have announced that they want to launch commercial 6G services between 2028 and 2030 and Japan wants to have a 6G pilot network ready for the Osaka 2025 international expo.