WTF is: Open RAN

If you’re here, you’ve probably heard about the Open RAN debate and the split it’s causing as countries worldwide struggle to align their views on what the future of 5G looks like. So lets take a look at what it means, what its advantages are, and why so many people are concerned by its growth in popularity.

By way of definition, Open RAN means Open Radio-access Networks. What this denotes is a series of networks, each of which communicates with what is called a base station. In turn, each base station sends and receives traffic from what are called endpoints. Examples of endpoints are laptops, phones, and anything that is linked with a carrier network.

Now, generally, in any such network, a problem you can face is a lack of a standard, in that manufacturers do not have to consider if their product is interoperable with another company’s product. This means that if a telecom company wants to launch a wireless network of sorts, it would be restricted to a single vendor. As you can imagine, this behavior leads to consistently high costs and design rigidity.

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Open RAN solves this by forging a collaborative effort between equipment makers and telecoms companies in order to create an environment of interoperability. They do so by creating standards. Then, when all equipment is manufactured to satisfy those standards, carriers can be free to consider a wider choice or vendors, which in turn generates stronger competition and development opportunities.

In simple terms, Open RAN is essentially a push for industry standards to be established. This would mean that smaller manufacturers would be less pressured by the giants that would otherwise dictate the most used type of equipment.

All seems to make enough sense up till now, but then, what’s all the fuss about, the security problems and the ‘other concerns’ about Open RAN, and what its major critics proposing instead are?

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Well, one concern is the short-term introduction problem. Basically, since the standard allows for several new manufacturers to get involved in the 5G market, a situation where multiple vendors are introducing their own versions of new hardware and software to the network, means that some may not integrate well together, and loose ends will lead to significant vulnerabilities, especially when compared to an end-to-end system.

Others have said that open RAN is not secure because it relies on open-source code, which often requires hundreds of programmers to contribute to it. And it sure doesn’t help soothe such concerns when policy makers are reminded that China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom are among the more than 30 Chinese enterprises that make up the O-RAN Alliance. Of course, the counter argument to this is that the open-source nature of the code would mean that many more eyes can be set on it, making it even more secure than other solutions.

And yet, calls for an open RAN standard only seem to be growing, as more and more governments worldwide begin to ask the question, “If not Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei, then who?”


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