The decoupling of hardware and software in the telecom industry has opened several technological possibilities while concurrently introducing new threats. An exciting change to the industry, with the opportunity to make Radio Access Network (RAN) architecture more dynamic in terms of vendor choice and software upgradability. The need for structure and compatibility for future RAN development drove major players in the telecoms’ industry to the forming of two different organizations, O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Group (TIP), both organizations with overlapping missions dedicated to the design and interoperability of OpenRAN (aka O-RAN*) architecture.
The anticipation of 5G deployment sped up the telecoms industries desire to make 5G expansion a quicker and cheaper process. This meant building upon the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) based architecture to ensure that RAN technology, increasingly becoming virtualized (vRAN), could handle the complexities associated with an open architecture that involved an expanding list of vendors. Classically, telecom infrastructure was considered a bit of a “closed off” industry where one vendor would often service multiple aspects of a RAN infrastructure. The architectures historically open standards in theory allowed for many entrants into the telecom’s markets, but much of the different backbones of RAN happened to be run by a single vendor using customized solutions to their products. This made it difficult for another vendors’ hardware to intermix, as well as upgrading RAN software to work with different vendor hardware.
This inflexibility of vendor integration is beginning to sunset and a new wave of market changes will begin to affect the 5G industry and induce new security concerns, many already pointed out by Jason S. Boswell at Ericsson. A common security consideration is the fact that RAN standards are becoming increasingly Open Source which leads to many more eyes on its critical infrastructure design. This is seen by many as going in a positive direction, but it should be remembered that no eyes on your hardware and software can be a positive as well, but only up to a certain point as there is less opportunity for security research.
Not every risk is solely a security concern from an attacker. The transition of traditional RAN architecture to the cloud must consider the implications of logically mapped applications and the authentication measures used. Additionally, the total number of interfaces from 3GPP to Open RAN has increased and therefore will require more oversight by administrators. Third, the modular approach to using multiple pieces of vendor hardware in one tech stack, while also updating RAN software to work with these different vendors, can lead to common compatibility issues in production if not properly tested. These are areas in which proper administration of resources is as important to the integrity of the architecture as it is to defend from attackers.
The future of RAN architecture will offer the security industry a lot of opportunity to contribute and serve the expansion of 5G.
*OpenRAN is the term used by the TIP organization for the new RAN standards while O-RAN is the designated term used by the O-RAN Alliance