Ericsson Spots Security Risks of Open RAN

Article By : John Walko

Ericsson warns of the security risks of open RAN, even as enthusiasm for the approach seems to be increasing among carriers around the world...

Just as the open RAN concept is gaining traction -– with more and more operators around the world rolling out limited networks and others finalizing trials; an exciting roll-call of component and systems suppliers joining the party; and market analysts poring over the numbers and coming up with ambitious and perhaps overly enthusiastic projections — along comes Ericsson to dampen the mood.

The Swedish group has issued the wireless infrastructure sector a stern warning that the underlying technology could be inherently insecure.

Perhaps we should not be completely surprised. Ericsson is not far behind arch-rival Huawei with its reservations about the whole concept of “openness” for next generation mobile networks, and clearly has serious concerns about the wave of support for its alternative to the established set-up for the radio access network (RAN).

Open RAN (O-RAN) is a way to separate the various elements of a network so that operators will be able to mix and match products from different vendors in the same set-up. Its proponents argue it could be significantly more cost effective than the current set up where giant groups such as Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia typically sell highly integrated and often proprietary hardware and software in a package.

Jason Boswell

Jason Boswell, head of security, network product solutions at Ericsson, highlights several specific issues that he suggests must be considered before open RAN architectures can and should be considered secure being widely deployed. He made his arguments a white paper and accompanying blog “Making sure that Open doesn’t open the door for new risks in 5G.”

“The introduction of new and additional touch points in O-RAN architecture, along with the decoupling of hardware and software, has the potential to expand the threat and attack surface of the network in numerous ways,” warns Boswell.

Some of the dangers he refers to include:

  • New interfaces increasing the threat surface, for instance open front-haul;
  • Near-real time RAN intelligent controller (RIC) and 3PP xApps introducing new threats that could be exploited;
  • Decoupling of hardware increasing the threat to the trust chain;
  • Management interfaces not being secured to industry best practices;

…and one not exclusive to O RAN…

  • Adherence to open source best practices.

Boswell concludes that as with any nascent technology, “security cannot be an afterthought and should be built upon a security-by-design approach.”

The 14-page document raises some pertinent issues and makes interesting reading. The concerns raised should certainly not be ignored, nor are they less important or relevant because it is Ericsson which is pointing them out.

The industry is more than aware that network security needs to be paramount in any new architecture for such an important element of the entire mobile network infrastructure.

What is perhaps concerning, though, is the theme running through the white paper that the open RAN is inherently compromised when it comes to security.

Sub-heads such as “100 ways to build (and secure) a network;” “Weakened Link in the Trust Chain;” and “Expanded Threat Surface” are clearly meant as a wake-up call for the entire infrastructure sector.

In a section focusing on risks relevant but not exclusive to O-RAN, Boswell argues that “third party hardware may require an additional layer of security assurance and checks to ensure that end-to-end integrity of the components and a trustworthy, secure supply chain are maintained.”

Perhaps some of these concerns should be highlighted at an (on-line) Forum organized by the FCC this week, in which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to participate.

What certainly will be welcomed is the fact that major operators worldwide are getting more involved with the concept. For instance, Japanese group Rakuten is starting 4G services in some urban areas of the country on a network that uses only open RAN. And US operator Dish Networks has started some large private network build using the technology.

Vodafone and Telefonica are active in Europe, readying roll-outs in some of their territories, as is Deutsche Telekom, while in the US, both Verizon and AT&T are busy with large scale trials. According to Signals Research Group, AT&T has conducted large scale network tests in Texas with gear from both Samsung and Ericsson.

On the vendors’ side, many of the mainly US groups that have been leading the development of virtualized RAN software (such as Altiostar, Parallel Wireless  and Mavenir) have been sending out positive signals about take-up, as are the suppliers of the specialised radio units for Open RAN such as Airspan, Fujitsu and NEC.

There is already talk of some activity of potential mergers and acquisitions (M&A) within the sector, and two recent market research groups have come in with figures that have certainly not dampened expectations.

Neither has it gone unnoticed that many other companies not necessarily directly involved with network infrastructure supply have joined the party, via membership of the Open RAN Policy Coalition. The list includes Texas Instruments, Xilinx, Broadcom, NVidia, Ligado Networks, America Tower and GigaTerra Communications.

The crystal ball gazers at ABI Research suggest the Open RAN “ecosystem” will have reached a total market valuation $30 billion by 2030, higher than the traditional RAN market, which by then will have reached $20 billion. It cautions that this “will not happen overnight” for public cellular networks. They also suggest the technology will drive a $10 billion greenfield market.

Meanwhile the Dell’Oro group’s number crunchers have been contemplating a shorter time-span, and have predicted that the total spend on Open RAN technology of $5 billion over the next five years. This includes hardware, software, and firmware, but excludes services.

According to Stefan Pongratz, vice president and analyst at the research group, said: “At a first glance this might appear overly optimistic with a baseline scenario suggesting a new technology, which remains relatively untested and some officials believe would need a decade to get off the ground.”

He added the momentum has been improving recently, “and we have adjusted the outlook upward to reflect a confluence of factors including promising results from initial deployments, growing support from the incumbent RAN suppliers, and increased geopolitical uncertainty.”

As regards the last statement, Pongratz is likely referencing the “forces” that have been applied by the US government to drive Huawei out of the domestic  market and its efforts to stop other countries using the Chinese behemoth’s gear. All this has boosted the technology’s profile and support, notably in the US.

 

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