24 Mar 2021

Open standards for private 5G: key to effective supply, or a security nightmare?

Not another 5G article, you say? Bear with, in this one, I reference two important issues: (i) new private enterprise solutions, and (ii) supply chain evolution with open standards.  

What is a private enterprise solution?  

Nothing new per se, enterprises have been running private networks for decades. But with modern technologies such as 5G and cloud, use of carrier grade equipment and licensed spectrum means that highly resilient and tailored solutions can be deployed with attractive commercial models. Also, as a mainstream technology, 5G brings B2C solutions, so shared access and scales economies can be leveraged. More details on this in one of my previous articles1.  

Why can’t we just use WiFi6, it’s cheaper isn’t it?  

Yes, WiFi6 products are hitting the streets, and yes they are at lower price points than 5G. But WiFi6 uses unlicensed radio spectrum, which means more interference and less resilience, even with the novel frequency re-use methods enabled. You get what you pay for; if you want high resilience, 5G is probably the way.  

What are open standards?  

Again, nothing new as such, but in practice many ‘open’ standards remain partially closed. The next stage is about breaking down architectures, and exposing a higher volume of interfaces with vendor neutral access. This blows apart the supply chain, introduces mass competition, and in the long run, is probably a good thing.  

What is the state of play today?  

Practically and commercially, ORAN is still emerging. But it is without doubt, one to watch, bringing as it does the potential for major shifts in architectures, supply chains, and commercial models.  

Pros and cons 

There are many practical advantages to splitting out network sites. For example, with today’s 5G products, it is better to locate baseband units (BBUs) in back-offices and comms rooms, and remote radio units (RRUs) close to end-users. Use of eCPRI protocol over fibre supports this today, but doesn’t offer fully open interfaces.  

To illustrate direction of travel, one can look towards 5.5G and 6G technologies, now attracting significant R&D funding globally. In the recent white paper on 6G produced by The University of Surrey2, the ‘network of networks’ concept is considered; wireless operators today recognise that the ’traditional’ drive towards ever more capacity is commercially unsustainable, and that new models must be introduced.   

Other advantages with ORAN include prevention of vendor lock-in, native cloud architectures for commercial efficiency, and increased supply chain competition to drive down prices. There is also increased opportunity for trade, with insertion of products into the global ecosystem. 

There are also some disadvantages. With a diverse ecosystem comes the issue of who to hold to account if problems arise. A move to open standards will be good news for systems integrators, but could cause some concerns for enterprise clients. Further, any move to open up networks with higher volumes of accessible interfaces, and open standards raises security concerns: how will network security be maintained in such situations? Good practice in system architectures includes use of both intra- and inter- domain security, so that any breaches are both minimised and contained. National security matters must, of course, also be taken into account.  

Delivering commercial solutions 

The complexity of 5G enterprise deployments and open systems should not be under-estimated. With increased diversity, comes increased supply chain risk and reliance on systems integrators.   

Development of diversity in the supply chain is a positive move for enterprises and national economies, but security solutions must be advanced accordingly. 

Access to independent proven experts who have already delivered large private 5G solutions reduces risk, by ensuring fast access to the right knowledge, design solutions, and commercial models. 

Guest blog by Ian Corden, Plum Consulting

Ian is a an established consultant and brings over 30 years of experience in industry and consulting in telecoms and technology, including extensive strategy and C-suite work, CTO, NGN delivery director, and transformation and procurement director roles. He has recently advised a number of major enterprises on private and shared access 5G and ORAN solutions, from early stage board strategy to systems procurement and programme implementation. Formerly with PwC TMT Strategy London, Nokia, Oracle, and Bell Labs, his interests span emerging technologies across the full technology stack, finance, policy, regulation, and digital transformation. Ian is a Visiting Professor at The University of Surrey, and holds PhD and BSc (1st Class) degrees in Engineering, PgD Management and Finance. He is based in the UK and supports clients globally.  

You can follow Ian on Twitter: @iancordenLinkedin, and email Ian: [email protected][email protected] —Phone: +44 (0)7399 581978 

To read more from #DiversifyingTelecoms Campaign Week check out our landing page here.