MWC 2022: O-RAN network introduction may take more time due to security gaps

Open radio access networks allow telecom operators to diversify their supplier ecosystem

Paul Michael Scanlan during an interview at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The National

The introduction of open radio access networks (O-RAN) in the telecoms industry may take time globally, owing to security gaps in the model, a top official at China's Huawei Technologies has said.

The system, known as O-RAN, allows operators to include different suppliers in their radio networks, which could in turn challenge the dominance of telecoms equipment makers such as Ericsson and Huawei.

Use of O-RAN has gained more traction in recent years. Its proponents, such as the O-RAN Alliance and the Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project, say it would enable a more competitive and vibrant supplier ecosystem, with the ability to innovate faster, while the efficiency of mobile networks based on it will improve.

It is also seen as a way to lower the costs for managing infrastructure and operations.

While Beijing-based Huawei – the world's biggest maker of telecommunication gear – does not have a formal position on the topic, the company has tested O-RAN internally and found it does achieve operators' targets in terms of overall functionality, said Paul Michael Scanlan, chief technology officer of Huawei's carrier business group, in an interview at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"However, the jury is still out on the security aspects of it. I haven’t seen multiple vendors providing an ecosystem of O-RAN and any discussions or white papers about the practical components of potential vulnerabilities or not," he told The National.

"It’s a very challenging question to answer because there is no formation that is freely available."

However, that hasn't hindered adoption in digitally advanced economies, particularly in the US and Europe, where several members of the O-RAN Alliance come from.

In July, five of the Middle East's biggest telecom groups – the UAE's Etisalat and du, Saudi Telecom Company, Riyadh-based Etisalat affiliate Mobily and Kuwait's Zain – signed an agreement to jointly press ahead with their plans to integrate O-RAN into their networks.

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Seven operators from the Gulf are expected to jointly announce the deployment of O-RAN at this year's MWC, a source told The National.

The O-RAN concept is evolving as part of a natural progression of the network equipment ecosystem, promising greater interoperability for operators, lowering the cost of deployment and speeding up the pace of network roll-out, Krishna Chinta, programme manager of telecoms and IoT at International Data Corporation Middle East and Africa, told The National.

But "there is a risk that the threat surface area can grow with the involvement of a higher number of vendors in the O-RAN ecosystem. Network operators will be forced to step up their due diligence to ensure vendors are embedding the necessary security features", he added.

An amusement ride using 4D metaverse technology at the SK Telecom stand during Mobile World Congress 2022 in Barcelona. Alvin R. Cabral / The National

Standardised bodies and related consortiums, where providers are promoting O-RAN by creating new specifications and accomplishing interoperability testing, are also receiving government support, Pulkit Pandey, an associate principal analyst at Gartner, told The National.

"But current O-RAN solutions are not as mature as classic purpose-built base station equipment, and at least two to three years could be needed to be useful," he said.

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However, the jury is still out on the security aspects of it. I haven’t seen multiple vendors providing an ecosystem of O-RAN and any discussions or white papers about the practical components of potential vulnerabilities or not
Paul Michael Scanlan, chief technology officer of Huawei's carrier business group

In terms of managing vendors in an O-RAN system, having more than one suggests that the management of the process is more complicated, which goes against Huawei's goal of simplifying its services, Mr Scanlan said.

"From a practical implementation standpoint, you could ask 'how do I deploy it, who do I contract'," he said.

"I haven’t seen anything saying that it’s going to be secure as everyone might like it."

The MWC is the annual trade show dedicated to the mobile industry, organised by the GSMA Association.

Updated: March 03, 2022, 11:48 AM