Open RAN must sound like the latest tech acronym. It is not. As telecoms operators embark on a €174 billion investment challenge to bring gigabit connectivity to all Europeans, Open RAN is a nonproprietary, open version of the Radio Access Network that will contribute to building 5G networks.
South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. have been betting big on this open technology: they launched coalitions, funded trials and set up innovation centers.
The EU should defend and further extend its leadership position in network equipment. Today, we can pride ourselves with global technology champions such as Nokia and Ericsson, which are both heavily investing in the future of telecoms networks. With technology for radio access evolving very rapidly, new actors are emerging and other regions of the world are getting ready to challenge us.
The EU can keep the lead by fostering a stronger, homegrown European ecosystem for radio access networks, including Open RAN. One that puts cybersecurity and environmental sustainability at its core. I propose we show our resolve in two main ways: first, with funding for industry-driven collaboration on development, deployment and by encouraging an EU certification scheme; second, by supporting a European industry alliance on Open RAN.
Network virtualization: it’s about industrial strategy
With the advent of 5G and fiber, networks are being ‘virtualized’: connectivity functions move from physical switches to the cloud. This means that networks become a platform to which customers and developers can connect, based on standardized APIs (Application Programming Interface). Just like creating apps for a smartphone, but with the power of a global connectivity network behind it.
A wealth of industrial sectors are starting to connect to the new network to innovate their business models: from connected cars to smart factories; from health care to public transports. You can develop industrial apps for increasing productivity, delivering better service and slashing carbon emissions.
It’s easy to see how this is key in terms of industrial strategy: if the EU is to stay competitive, then it must master the technologies and the supply chains behind it. Network virtualization and the future of RAN are at the core of this transformation.
Supporting the EU Open RAN ecosystem
A recent Deloitte report showed that, among the enabling technologies, open RAN and Network Function Virtualization may require the most resources: in the EU, by 2030, we expect investment levels up to €100 billion for each of those technologies.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Biden administration launched a $1.5 billion innovation fund to push Open RAN specifically. The EU has also invested a lot in 5G and future generation of networks. Now, it is high time to step into supporting the creation of an EU Open RAN ecosystem and take the lead. All the ingredients are there: political determination to lead on 5G, innovative homegrown vendors, and a determined telecoms industry which already established its own initiative to push for a European Open RAN.
We should now streamline the efforts with the support of the European Commission and of EU funding. From innovation to trials, from industry collaboration to deployment. The model already exists: the EU Digital Decade program established the possibility to set up multicountry projects. The Commission and interested member countries can now combine investments in key areas such as 5G communication and data infrastructure. In my view we should support interoperable and open networks, including the creation of an EU-wide certification framework and with a view to foster a European Open RAN ecosystem.
I also propose that the EU further shows resolve by supporting a European industry alliance on Open RAN. A recent experience in South Korea can help show the way. It is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather recognizing the efforts of the European industry on this topic and promoting them.
Addressing the strategic autonomy and security challenge
The von der Leyen Commission has rightly prioritized Open Strategic Autonomy. To put it in Commissioner Breton’s words, “we are leaving our naivety behind” and intend to assert ourselves on technology. I agree with this approach, because if we do not lead on the technologies of the future, we risk losing out not only on socio-economic growth, but also we reduce our ability to be in control.
Technology evolution, as always, also brings along security challenges. The telecoms industry is working hard to ensure that 5G as well as the hardware and software behind are secure. More than that: network virtualization and AI applied to network operations mean fresh opportunities to make communications more secure and sustainable. The premise for all of this, however, is that we maintain an edge on the underlying technologies, such as open RAN.
Open RAN will be a key component of the 5G supply chain going forward. This is why, also from a security standpoint, we want Europe to be ahead of the game and take the lead when it comes to both the innovation and the deployment aspects. Investment, industry collaboration and renewed policy focus on Open RAN can help us get there.