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 the base stations. Industry players such as Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and O-RAN Alliance drive the development and deployment of Open RAN technologies.

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.

For example, in the US, a global turn towards Open RAN would allow tech companies to carve out and dominate 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 does not provide implementation details. Operators are the ones who choose solutions based on market requirements 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 into a WINTEL model, which will result in high-level domination. A multi-supplier model does not 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 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 because 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 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, continually analyze, 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.

Open RAN expectations

Based on GSMA Intelligence data, there are 73 operators from 38 markets — APAC on the lead — who have either deployed or committed to open RAN deployments until July 2021. We saw many interesting developments in the open RAN space recently such as Middle East operators joining forces to implement solutions, Vodafone teaming up with Mavenir to develop small cell solutions for indoor connectivity, and Google Cloud joining O-RAN Alliance.

Offering flexibility and alternatives in deploying radio networks, CSPs have considered Open RAN. Hence, it is expected to become a vital component for 5G’s success. RAN buildout is known as the biggest investment in terms of 5G network deployment. With this in mind, the ability to extend radio capacity quickly and efficiently will determine how CSPs can deploy and monetize 5G services.

ACG Research found that CSPs are keenly interested in virtual Open RAN systems, while also actively engaged in helping to develop specifications through the O-RAN Alliance. Accordingly, they plan to continue evaluating, testing, and validating Open RAN through 2022, and within 2023-2025, broader deployments are expected to happen.

Despite broad enthusiasm for Open RAN technology, challenges currently exist in adopting this technology, as mentioned above. Many also consider the fact that multi-vendor Open RAN solutions could lead to setbacks due to extended testing and validation times. Besides, the scale of 5G’s anticipated RAN growth and the need to integrate these new RAN resources into existing operations systems can affect the deployment process. While CSPs understand these challenges, there is still a consensus belief that its benefits may prevail in the long run.

It is also expected that O-RAN trials and deployments will move at a faster pace as operators that have already built out centralized RAN configurations (for 4G LTE) and invested in fiber infrastructure are probably in a better position to support more specially configured trial configurations for 5G placement. On the other hand, new site deployments for 5G without the prior investment in centralized RAN for 4G likely need more uniform profiles to upgrade its operations.

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