At the Open RAN World event in Berlin, the Digital Infrastructure Minister Julia Lopez announced a set of principles for developing and deploying Open RAN equipment in the UK.
The government says there is a need for clarity on the design characteristics of Open RAN, such as the adoption of standards and demonstration of interoperability between components. These Open RAN Principles clear up this ambiguity to ensure it delivers on its promise of resilient and secure networks for 5G and beyond, and innovative and competitive supply chains for the long-run.
The principles will help ensure any future investment in Open RAN R&D is well targeted to give the taxpayer the best value for money, and provide a guide to industry to ensure the Open RAN tech being developed and deployed in the UK will work in the interests of British citizens and business.
The UK is becoming one of the best places in the world to invest in Open RAN technologies. The £250 million 5G Diversification Strategy, published November 2020, sets out where the government will remove barriers for new vendors, invest in open technologies like Open RAN and work with like-minded countries to achieve the shared aim for secure and resilient telecoms supply chains.
Minister for Digital Infrastructure Julia Lopez said:
With so much momentum behind Open RAN, now is the right time to set these principles so industry and governments can take a common approach to developing and deploying this technology, so it delivers on its promise to disrupt the market and spark a wave of innovation and competition in telecoms.
The strategy identifies the success of open-interface solutions, such as Open RAN, as an important element for driving diversification. To ensure that Open RAN achieves these goals, the industry and like-minded public bodies should adopt the following principles:
- Open disaggregation, allowing elements of the RAN to be sourced from different suppliers and implemented in new ways.
- Standards-based compliance, allowing all suppliers to test solutions against standards in an open, neutral environment.
- Demonstrated interoperability, ensuring disaggregated elements work together as a fully functional system — at a minimum matching the performance and security of current solutions.
- Implementation neutrality, allowing suppliers to innovate and differentiate on the features and performance of their products.
Approaches that suppliers and network providers could adopt which will assist in achieving these principles include:
- avoid fragmentation of specifications and splits, initially focusing on the smallest possible number of options for disaggregating networks
- prioritisation and optimisation of the requirements and priorities of mobile operators and other network builders
- an open, transparent and inclusive approach, compliant with WTO rules, to developing standards and protecting intellectual property, allowing fair access by new players and facilitating external scrutiny
- assurance of compliance with open standards via neutral testing environments
- transparency of market information, in particular transparency of access to relevant essential intellectual property
These principles are consistent with the Prague Proposals on Telecommunications Supplier Diversity which the UK and other governments supported in 2021.
Ian Levy, Technical Director at the National Cyber Security Centre, said:
Open RAN promises to make our networks more resilient and futureproof, but this market change must be managed carefully to deliver on that promise whilst maintaining security and performance levels. These Principles set a clear direction of travel for the industry to build secure and resilient networks for 5G and beyond.
The Government strategy sets out how increasing the diversity of suppliers is therefore essential, as a means of enabling four major outcomes.
Security and resilience
Telecoms networks represent critical national infrastructure, enabling a wide range of essential public and private services. In that context, it is essential to ensure their security and their resilience. The impact of malicious functionality being added to equipment by a hostile actor or a vulnerability being exploited increases when there is a lack of vendor diversity, due to the widespread impact each vendor has on operators around the world. Increasing the number of vendors and reducing the number of proprietary interfaces, should go hand-in-hand with greater openness and scrutiny of standards development and implementation.
This will enable security researchers to identify and address potential threats and attacks rapidly as they arise. By promoting vendor diversity therefore, we seek to strengthen the ability of critical national networks to continue to function under threats including cyber attack and supplier exit, and for any vulnerabilities to be identified and rectified swiftly, with minimal impact.
A continuous pipeline of ongoing innovation will be needed in the future to keep up with the expected growth in data demand, to address new challenges, such as the need to reduce the energy consumption of networks, and to provide services to other specialist industries rather than only consumers. As long as there are only a small handful of telecoms vendors in the major networks, there are barriers to new and adjacent companies bringing their specialist skills into telecoms, making it harder for those companies to find the necessary investment and ultimately hindering the pace of innovation.
All of these outcomes can be facilitated by ensuring that the conditions are right for a proliferation of vendors of both telecoms networks and of the components and subcomponents which make them up, enabling a more open, dynamic and efficient market for telecom technology and the services and expertise needed to build and operate networks based on that technology.
These outcomes are desirable for all telecoms networks, but the governments focus here is on the critical area of the mobile radio access network (RAN). The RAN constitutes by far the biggest expense in the network, requires the most rapid improvements in diversity and performance, and requires the most specialist skills to develop, integrate and operate.
The concept of Open RAN has arisen as the main route to enabling RAN vendor diversification, and with it achieving the four outcomes highlighted above. Yet while there is intensive global activity across industry groups and companies to develop Open RAN specifications and products, there is no consistent interpretation of what true Open RAN looks like. Without this, there is a risk that Open RAN may be developed in such a way that it does not deliver on its potential benefits, or that standards may be dominated by particular interests.
There have been several previous attempts to create open base station standards which have failed to deliver the expected benefits. By setting out clear Open RAN principles the government seeks to avoid these risks and ensure Open RAN can deliver on its promise to facilitate the sustainable growth of a competitive and innovative market, with resilient and secure mobile networks.
Scott Petty, Chief Digital and IT Officer, Vodafone said:
Vodafone is taking a leading role in the development and rollout of OpenRAN, which will be a central part of our long-term network evolution and resilience.
We welcome the government’s continued commitment to this innovative and exciting technology and look forward to accelerating the adoption of OpenRAN across the wider telecoms ecosystem.
In December the government announced a joint ambition made with the UK mobile network operators for 35% of mobile network traffic to pass through Open RAN by the end of the decade, and a string of investments worth over £50 million in innovative trials and facilities to develop new Open RAN solutions.
Diversification of the telecoms network supply chain is essential to preserve and enhance the security, resilience, innovation and competitiveness of telecoms networks. Open RAN is a promising route to enabling that diversification for mobile and wireless networks but needs clarity on its aims to ensure its effectiveness.