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Why Germany’s investment in Open RAN will not solve its 5G problem

For more than two years, the German government has debated the importance of vendor trustworthiness and diversity as its 5G rollout gets under way. Now, just months after Berlin’s IT security law received cabinet approval, the draft legislation is once again drawing ire from experts concerned about Huawei’s unchecked presence in Germany’s networks. While the debate about Chinese vendors drags on, the German government has remained active on 5G and is now also looking to Open RAN as a solution to its 5G problem.

Though it continues to dominate discussions on 5G, the idea of Open RAN is fundamentally misunderstood by policymakers responsible for ensuring network rollouts. Simply put, Open RAN is not a new kind of telecoms technology but rather a way of designing existing technological components to allow them to be used in an interoperable way within a network. Instead of using a proprietary (single-source) system to build the radio access portion of a 5G network, a fully-developed and standards-based Open RAN would allow telecoms operators to choose components made by various manufacturers and arrange them as desired. But true Open RAN is still several years away from fruition. And, though it may have potential down the road, the current reality is significantly starker. If Berlin intends to ensure Germany’s 5G security through the pursuit of Open RAN, it has missed the mark.

With its promise of interoperability across the radio access network regardless of manufacturer, Open RAN appeals to European telecoms operators and lawmakers alike. It has received strong backing from telecoms providers (among them Germany’s Deutsche Telekom), which signed in late January a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to implement Open RAN networks in Europe and calling on governments to provide the necessary financial support. In early February, Berlin responded in kind, announcing a multibillion-euro “joint proposal for action” that earmarks €300 million of German taxpayer’s money for developing Open RAN.

From a government perspective, Open RAN provides an opportunity to increase the diversity of vendors while simultaneously reducing the share of Huawei equipment in Germany’s networks and upholding Berlin’s commitments to the European Union’s 5G Security Toolbox. For operators, a standards-based Open RAN solution could help break the market dominance Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson hold in Europe’s 5G radio access technology. It could also address the challenge of vendor lock-in that keeps operators dependent on an individual supplier and makes diversification across vendors more difficult. But so far, Open RAN is not a standard – it is just a concept. And it is far from becoming a reality.

Firstly, Open RAN is not a new technology that will solve the telecoms world’s vendor diversity problem. Open RAN is the still-unproven concept that tech components can be built according to specifications that will allow them – regardless of manufacturer – to be used interchangeably within the same network without compromising on security, speed, or performance. Open RAN is still very much in the development stage. And even operators that have already begun building out multi-vendor networks acknowledge that true Open RAN interoperability is not guaranteed. This is the great unknown of Open RAN that has created an inherent disconnect between tech experts and government officials. For developers on the tech side, the most pressing question of Open RAN is still: “will it work?” But, for lawmakers seeking an immediate solution to the 5G problem, the dominant question is: “how do we make it work?”

Secondly, when it comes to Open RAN, European policymakers are falling victim to a degree of economic statecraft. The United States is a strong proponent of Open RAN and currently has no telecoms vendor capable of competing with European powerhouses Nokia or Ericsson in traditional network buildouts. However, a global turn towards Open RAN would allow US tech companies to carve out and dominate a space in the telecoms market through specialised 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.

But, despite the United States’ support, Open RAN may be unable to compete with traditional networks in security performance and energy consumption. In proprietary systems, components are designed to perform a specific function and are optimised to work seamlessly with one another. But, because it is up to the operator to choose the individual pieces that make up the puzzle with Open RAN, components are designed for flexibility, not optimisation. This may also mean that Open RAN networks are more vulnerable to traditional security threats, as more points of connection across hardware and software components can present increased opportunities for malicious activity.

Beyond these security concerns, constructing a piecemeal network can reduce performance and increase energy usage. For example, Apple has achieved staggering results by replacing Intel chips with its own M1 chip design in the newest line of Mac computers. Apple’s chip, designed in-house for use within its exclusive system, has yielded faster processing speeds, longer battery life, and stronger overall performance. It is also more energy-efficient. While personal computers and telecoms networks are different, the benefits of single-system designs over interchangeable components are important considerations for the tech community and for policymakers making decisions on future tech investment.

Although the M1 chip demonstrates that proprietary systems can produce enhanced performance at reduced operational and energy costs, policymakers in Washington are encouraging their European allies to buy into Open RAN at the expense of single-supplier networks, which have been tried and tested through earlier generations of network buildouts. For telecoms operators, a preference for multi-vendor systems may mean sacrificing efficiency and performance in pursuit of interoperability. And, once available, Open RAN may prove more energy-intensive than proprietary systems, meaning that Germany’s investment in this approach may not be in line with its domestic energy transition and commitments to the European Green Deal.

Thirdly, despite the fact that governments have lauded it as a solution to the Huawei problem, Open RAN is not inherently free of Chinese technology or immune from Beijing’s influence. The O-RAN Alliance – a global organisation founded by telecoms industry leaders working to establish the specifications for Open RAN’s interoperability – counts several Chinese technology companies among its members. They include China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom, all of which are state-funded and have direct ties to the Chinese government. Through these firms, Beijing has direct access to the O-RAN Alliance and can influence the standards shaping Open RAN. Using Open RAN to build a network free of Huawei technology would mean very little in terms of security if other Chinese companies helped establish the specifications by which the network operated.

Finally, Open RAN does nothing to shore up Germany’s network security in the short term. Yet Berlin’s support for Open RAN makes it seem as though lawmakers are actively working to protect domestic telecoms networks while, in reality, they are continuing to sidestep the single action that would be most effective in enhancing Germany’s 5G national security: the exclusion of non-trustworthy vendors. Efforts to reclaim Germany’s digital sovereignty and position the country at the forefront of future tech developments are important goals that both the government and industry should prioritise. But government investment in Open RAN is not the answer.

Rather than pour hundreds of millions of taxpayer euros into Open RAN, which remains years away from commercial-scale readiness, Berlin could use the funds to assist operators in replacing vulnerable parts of existing networks or otherwise accelerate Germany’s 5G rollout. By focusing on Open RAN and its implications for the future, Berlin risks falling further behind on implementing 5G now. ECFR

 

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