Open RAN ‘immature’, experts tell UK politicians in security enquiry

Open RAN ‘immature’, experts tell UK politicians in security enquiry

Chi Onwurah MP.jpg

The UK mobile telecoms industry will continue to rely on the Ericsson-Nokia duopoly and the open-source equipment industry is still some years from maturity.

That was the message to the committee of politicians discussing the details of the security of telecoms networks.

Open radio access network  (ORAN or open RAN) technology “is relatively immature in its development”, Derek McManus, COO of O2 UK, told the committee, which is examining the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, now going through Parliament in London.

“We tend to buy end-to-end service in the current mobile environment,” he added. “ORAN today is set up with a quite separate and different supply chain, with different companies specialising in software, different companies specialising in hardware and specialists doing the integration. It is likely to change the nature and relationship that we will have with suppliers.”

Andrea Donà, Vodafone UK’s networks head, gave a more positive outlook, but still wanting time to remove equipment from so-called high risk vendors, companies identified as Huawei and ZTE. “We at Vodafone believe that the UK should seek to be a leader in open RAN. We are, indeed, leading the way, and have committed to swapping out 2,600 of our base stations to an open RAN technology.”

He added: “The current timescales for removing the high-risk vendor equipment must remain unchanged. We need the stability and the time … to allow industry and Government to develop a diverse supply chain and allow the technology to mature, both in its functionality and its capability, as well as the possibility of scaling industrially.”

Donà said that “the legacy vendors have had a lot of time in the market to develop their competence” and called for “appropriate investment incentives” for open RAN.

The UK is unusual in imposing such security rules, said the industry executives in response to committee member Chi Onwurah (pictured), the MP for Newcastle Central and the only member of the UK House of Commons who is a telecoms engineer, with a degree from Imperial College London.

“Vodafone runs networks across Europe, and so does Three, whose owner is headquartered in Hong Kong, and O2, which is owned by Telefónica,” said Onwurah. “Does the bill duplicate or reflect legislation that you have seen elsewhere in your operations?”

O2’s McManus said: “Basically, we have not seen anything directly like the UK legislation, although various forms of it can be seen internationally.”

Patrick Binchy, technical services director of Three UK, said: “We have a very similar position with regard to the UK legislation: we have not seen quite the same in the other countries.”

On ORAN, McManus forecast a long development process: “It will be at least a couple of years before you have a viable technical and commercial product, focused initially on rural. To have diversification in a meaningful way, you have to have scale, and scale will take a number of years beyond that — I would say five to eight years to get a real, viable-scale vendor to challenge the two incumbents.”

He was sceptical about the likelihood that UK hardware vendors would come into the industry on the open RAN wave.

“The UK used to have a very healthy telecoms supply industry, which sadly over time has faded away,” said McManus. “I think it is more likely that the UK could play in the software part of the future of radio, and particularly ORAN, than in the hardware part. I cannot see today a viable UK hardware provider.”

Kevan Jones MP asked: “So, for the conceivable future, we will be reliant on those two vendors: Nokia and Ericsson?”

McManus replied: “Yes, and if you look at the scale of mobile growth, the fact that there are only two remaining viable competitors is an indication of how difficult it is to have competition in today’s marketplace.”


Gift this article