The False Promise of Open RAN
The question of whether to include Huawei technology in the rollout of Europe’s 5G infrastructure has increased awareness of the vulnerabilities that stem from technological dependence on China. The high level of market concentration in the Radio Accession Network (RAN) market has led to Open RAN being presented as a solution, as it disaggregates the components of RAN. However, while Open RAN is a promising technological concept, it does not solve the “China challenge” as it neither reduces reliance on China nor necessarily offers a higher degree of network security.
Please note: Below you find the introduction of the second public report by Digital Power China (DPC), a research consortium convened by DGAP Research Fellow Dr. Tim Rühlig. The complete report can be downloaded as a PDF here.
The fifth generation of wireless infrastructure, widely known as 5G, has become the subject of geopolitical rivalry in recent years. A group of states spearheaded by the United States (US) argues that Chinese technology suppliers, notably Huawei and ZTE, are untrustworthy. Their major concern is that the Chinese party-state ultimately controls technology firms based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which could allow the authoritarian leaders in Beijing to exploit network insecurities and technological overdependence for political purposes.
Several states have therefore either explicitly or de facto excluded Huawei and ZTE from their rollout of 5G infrastructure.
As a result, there is a risk of a further consolidation of the highly concentrated Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment market. Only three companies share around 80 percent of the global RAN market: Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia and China’s Huawei. There may be other RAN vendors, particularly in the transport network, core network and management software, but only four companies are “full-stack” vendors able to offer tightly integrated solutions for radio, transport, core network and management software: Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei and ZTE. Thus, the exclusion of Huawei (and ZTE) reduces the market options to two dominant players in the west, thereby potentially increasing the cost of RAN. More crucially, vendor diversity strengthens network security. Banning Chinese suppliers for the sake of security could create other network security vulnerabilities as a result of the reduction in market options linked to less vendor diversity.
Some policymakers hope that a new technological concept could help to resolve this dilemma: “Open RAN”.6 In contrast to currently deployed single-vendor solutions, Open RAN is intended to enable multi-vendor single RAN site implementation.7 The Open RAN hardware and software components of a Radio Access Network are disaggregated, making it possible for them to be provided by separate suppliers. In a nutshell, mobile operators would not only have a choice between Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei, but also be ableto freely pick RAN components from a range of suppliers. In theory, this would increase network diversity because disaggregation multiplies vendor choice. These hopes have led governments to approve major subsidies for Open RAN development (e.g., in the US and Japan).8 The United Kingdom has increased its funding of Open RAN research and set a goal for “35% of the UK’s mobile network traffic to be carried over Open RAN by 2030”.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. While there is no denying the long-term potential of Open RAN, there are major pitfalls to this approach. Neither network security vulnerabilities nor overdependence on Chinese suppliers can be automatically resolved with Open RAN technology.
To substantiate this claim, this paper explains the concept of Open RAN and distinguishes it from similar terms, such as the O-RAN Alliance or the Open RAN Policy Coalition, that are often equated with it (section I). Next, the paper discusses the concerns raised about the inclusion of Chinese vendors in the rollout of 5G (section II). Open RAN provides no solutions to these risks and two major pitfalls are considered (section III). The paper ends with a short summary and presents six considerations for policymaking in Europe (section IV).
About the Digital Power China research consortium
The Digital Power China research (DPC) consortium is a gathering of China experts and engineers based in eight European research institutions, including universities and think tanks. In addition, a European non-resident fellow of a US research institution has joined DPC. The group is devoted to track and analyse China’s growing footprint in digital technologies and its implications for the European Union. Based on interdisciplinary
research DPC offers concrete policy advise to the EU. Tim Rühlig, Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), is the convenor of DPC and co-chairs the initiative with Carlo Fischione, who is a Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
DPC systematically pairs technological and country expertise. It is based on rigorous academic research that is combined with experience in the provision of policy advice. The informal group brings together a variety of European researchers in order to pair diverging perspectives from across the continent. Responsibility relies solely with the authors of this papers and chapters published by DPC.
At the time of writing the chapters, the participating researchers were affiliated with the following institutions:
|French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Paris
German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), Berlin
|Athens University of Economics and Business
|University of Insubria, Varese/Como
University of L’Aquila
|Riga Stradins University
|Clingendael Institute, The Hague
Leiden Asia Centre at Leiden University
|The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI), Stockholm
Uppsala University (UU)
|Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, Cambridge
This publication is based upon work from COST Action CA18215 - China In Europe Research Network (CHERN - www.china-in-europe.net), supported by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST - www.cost.eu).