US trade policy disguised as security

U.S. policymakers and industry advocates are taking the rounds, holding closed meetings with foreign governments to promote the “open” technologies of American companies. The pitch is compelling: build your 5G network at half the price with open, secure and interoperable mix-and-match components. It’s like assembling your own Tesla with parts from Wal-Mart.

There is probably a gap between marketing and the reality of so-called open radio access networks or OpenRAN. The products available today are unique new applications like small specialized cells; neutral hosts for the company; and a RAN intelligent controller (RIC) software platform for managing network applications. Building a network always requires the purchase of spectrum, antennas, radios, backbone, backbone and other equipment based on standards codified by the Third Generation Partnership Projected (3GPP). OpenRAN, which could not exist without 3GPP, would be built on or integrated with this fundamental standardized equipment.

OpenRAN opens the door to vulnerabilities

A group of 60 US companies called the OpenRAN Policy Coalition claim that OpenRAN is as good, if not better, for security than regular RAN. That’s an interesting claim, and if it were true we would have a better defense against forwards. As described in their white paper, the OpenRAN security value proposition is distributed security analysis defined as “direct access to more data on network performance, as components are disaggregated and connected through open interfaces, allowing earlier visibility of potential security issues”. These analyzes could provide more granular data to functions that were previously hidden by vendors.

In a nutshell, there is valuable information on the network, but it is disorganized like a mass of papers in a backpack. OpenRAN provides a sort of Trapper Keeper, putting information in the correct color coded folders so that it is easy to find. Enabling such scans could be helpful, but it’s not overwhelming, and it falls short of the real security standards of 5G itself – the incremental technological innovations that allow better detection of threats, encryption, zero trust, cloud security and network slicing. Indeed, many American companies like Qualcomm create patents with these standards, which describe uniform criteria, techniques and practices.

The 5G standards of 3GPP contrast with the OpenRAN “specifications”, which are a set of requirements that can be met by various inputs. For example, you can cook Kraft branded macaroni and cheese or you can make it yourself with pasta, butter and cheese. Fortunately, there is room for both on the market, but ask your kids what they like best and why.

In any event, a to study security of these open specifications was commissioned by the German Federal Office for Information Security and modeled an attacker using forged “smart” radio signals to access an OpenRAN system through the much-vaunted open interface, and thus take control of the many network connected IoT devices to conduct a distributed attack. The study concludes that open specifications are insecure and lack “security by design”.

No security assessment by US authorities could be found for this item, but if a amendment With the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, it appears that an evaluation can take place after, but not before, the OpenRAN grants are distributed to American companies. The Government Accountability Office in its report “5G Wireless Capabilities and Challenges for an Evolving Network” acknowledges OpenRAN’s initiative to improve performance and reduce costs, but cautions that “the network’s attack surface is expanding dramatically”.

The opportunistic narrative the United States wants to exploit is that by leveraging its software and computing prowess, it can “innovate” to solve the Huawei and ZTE problem. However, due to the open-ended nature of the technology, it appears that it is swapping one bunch of bad actors from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for another. The OpenRAN specifications are shared and coordinated globally by the O-RAN Alliance. While the United States has the most membership, the PRC is second with 44. Eight of them face restriction from the list of American entities or denial of a business license from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) because of the suspected risks they pose to the national security of the United States.

Although Huawei publicly avoids OpenRAN, it sits on the board of directors of Kubernetes, the open source code bank used for OpenRAN and is the fifth proposed and accepted code contributor. In view of the PRC’s declared civil-military fusion strategy, the the threat of intrusion is probably pervasivet with all PRC OpenRAN vendors and specifications. Huawei is also the leading supplier to China Mobile, a founding member of the O-RAN Alliance.

OpenRAN realpolitik

The industrial momentum of OpenRAN comes in part from mobile operators keen to reduce costs and improve profitability. It is their strategy to trivialize equipment suppliers as unbundling has been proposed as a solution to “open” telecommunications networks. OpenRAN also serves as a solution to a perceived geopolitical problem that the United States does not have local 5G infrastructure providers.

However, the premise of this perceived problem is not true. In the United States, Nokia and Ericsson have manufacturing, R&D, tens of thousands of employees, their largest customers and their major shareholders. They may be more American than you think. Many OpenRAN supporters mistakenly describe the market as just four players. Omdia details over 50 companies in key equipment segments of radios, transportation, core business, network management and mobile edge computing.

In any event, the inordinate political focus on the RAN market misses the big picture of the 5G economy. Mobile operators around the world spend $ 170 billion a year on capital expenditures; The RAN represents 30 billion dollars. The 182 5G networks in 73 countries today have been built with standard RAN equipment, with the exception of the Japanese Rakuten with its proprietary OpenRAN solution. While there are different projections, a defensible horizon for OpenRAN is to be 5G ready by 2025 with an installed base of 1%. As for the return on investment of the billions of dollars offered in grants for OpenRAN, there are other policy opportunities with a more favorable benefit-cost ratio.

Policymakers should focus on growing revenues from 5G services, not reducing equipment costs

Rather than cutting costs among providers with low margins, policymakers should focus on expanding the 5G market by increasing revenue. A good example is making more spectrum available for 5G. The 280 MHz C-band auction has brought in $ 90 billion to the US Treasury from private companies and is expected to generate some $ 200 billion over the next few years. This could be doubled by rearranging nearby spectrum that is inefficiently used by the government.

In fact, the United States already has 4G / 5G leadership in place. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix capture the lion’s share of the global internet content, apps, cloud, and advertising market. To improve the odds of bets to be made with taxpayer money, we need to focus on the revenue-generating part of 5G – the market for services and applications integrating artificial intelligence, machine learning, computing. quantum and other emerging technologies.

At the very least, US policymakers should stop peddling trade policy as a security. It is a disrespect to defense analysts, IT people, engineers, and security officers who are responsible for securing networks against real-world security threats. To date, there is no academic, empirical or technical evidence that OpenRAN is as good or better than normal performance.

Congress cannot help but not give free money to businesses. If so, it should at least be under neutral conditions that allow technologies to compete on merits, and not on preferred technological religion.

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