For several years there has been a dispute about the extent to which it is politically justifiable for network operators from industrialized nations to use components for fourth or fifth generation cellular networks, i.e. for 4 / 5G, which are manufactured by Chinese suppliers such as Huawei or ZTE.

Currently, the discussion has intensified again as a result of indications from the Lithuanian authorities about possible censorship functions and security gaps in smartphones from Huawei, Xiaomi and OnePlus.

The last federal government under Chancellor Merkel took a number of measures due to the debate, two of which stand out: First, the law on the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) was changed in May 2021. The set of rules now authorizes the Federal Ministry of the Interior to prohibit network operators from using “critical (IT) components” “if the use is likely to affect public order or security in the Federal Republic of Germany”, as stated in Section 9b. Second, as part of the Corona economic stimulus package, two billion euros were made available to fund projects to develop an open architecture for 4 / 5G radio access networks, in industry jargon Open Radio Access Networks (O-RAN).

The O-RAN approach strives for the modularization and primarily software-supported better control of 4 / 5G access networks that link user devices such as smartphones, tablets or laptops via antennas with base stations as entry gates to the 4 / 5G core network. For this purpose, manufacturer-independent technical specifications for interfaces between the modules are to be published so that radio components and software from different suppliers can be combined with one another.

Operators of 4 / 5G networks hope to become less dependent on individual manufacturers such as Huawei - and to intensify competition so that RAN prices fall and innovations are developed more quickly. That is why they have been trying since 2016 in association-like project groups such as the xRAN Forum and the Cloud RAN Alliance, which in turn have been known as “O-RAN Alliance e. V. ”to promote the O-RAN approach together with suppliers and around the world as far as possible.

Political decision-makers and the public media, for their part, often give the impression that the O-RAN approach is the ideal way to significantly increase the digital sovereignty or even self-sufficiency of domestic 4 / 5G network operators via the interchangeability of suppliers, especially those of Chinese origin.

However, technical and empirical facts suggest that they are sitting on a chimera.

Market-wide standards would be required

From a technical point of view, an O-RAN architecture can create more transparency for the interfaces of different 4 / 5G access network modules (antennas, signal conversion and signal processing).

This does not change the inadequate transparency of the technology in the modules, i.e. its “black box” character, itself.

To do this, it would be necessary to only use so-called "white box" hardware, i.e. modules with components such as antenna subsystems or pre-assembled logic circuits (gate arrays) that are built according to standards used throughout the market.

In addition, the module-specific software packages would have to be published.

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