Adopting Open RAN allows us to balance economic benefits with national security interests

MALAYSIA’S 5G rollout woes boil down to one major conundrum: should we look West (i.e. Ericsson) or East (Huawei). The government also announced recently it would review Digital Nasional Berhad’s monopoly on setting up a 5G network.  

Local telecommunication companies like Maxis Bhd, which signed a long-term network agreement with the Chinese giant in October of 2019, is keen to manage a network in partnership with Huawei. But while we’re dealing with the debacle, other countries are looking at 6G.   

There is a viable solution: Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN). This approach to building cellular networks offers numerous advantages, including flexibility, security, cost effectiveness and local industry support. 

Japan implemented Open RAN successfully and learning from them and by leveraging on the experiences of local telcos, Malaysia can make an informed decision that balances economic benefits with national security interests. 

Pressure on Huawei 

In April, the United States and EU ambassadors to Malaysia wrote to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim expressing their concerns about the country’s decision to review a contract awarding Ericsson the tender to build the state-owned 5G network. The envoys stressed that by allowing Huawei, a Chinese equipment maker blacklisted by Washington, to rebid for the Malaysian project would pose a national security risk.  

Members of the Biden administration have been travelling around the globe to dissuade other governments from granting Huawei market access. The message is that countries which deploy Huawei technology are taking a risk that will endanger the US and its allies. 

While Malaysia has the right as a sovereign nation to make independent decisions, there are risks, not only in terms of national security but of antagonising either the US or China.  

Open RAN presents a third option that can address these concerns, offering a diplomatic solution, enhanced security measures and reducing dependency on a single supplier. 

Open RAN challenges the traditional vendor oligopoly by introducing a flexible and disaggregated approach to building and deploying cellular networks. Unlike closed and hardware-centric systems, it allows different parts of the network to be sourced from various vendors, ensuring interoperability and reducing security risks.  

Open RAN is also cost effective and has garnered strong industry support, with major players like Ericsson and Nokia embracing the model. 

Japan’s Kokusai Denshin Denwa (KDDI) led the deployment of the 5G Open Virtual Radio Access Network (vRan) sites. KDDI worked with Samsung and Fujitsu to deploy vRan – a specific Open RAN that uses virtualisation technology to deploy RAN functions – across the country. 

Another Japanese success story is Rakuten, which operates the first commercial 5G Open RAN network in the world and boasts of more than five million subscribers. Rakuten claimed that its network costs 40% less to build and up to 30% less to operate than traditional networks. 

Local familiarity  

Despite initial doubt and opposition from domestic telecom operators, the Japanese government and major electronic firms’ steadfast investments in Open RAN showcase its ability to enhance mobile network security and resilience.  

In 2018, the O-RAN Alliance was set up, comprising 300 major tech companies and operators, to highlight the industry’s consensus on interoperability, standardisation and the creation of open interfaces. 

Axiata Group Bhd, part owner of CelcomDigi, has already conducted successful Open RAN commercial field pilots in Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. 

The partnership with global network solution providers Mavenir and Parallel Wireless and Infosys as a systems integrator shows that local operators are already familiar with Open RAN. Leveraging on Axiata’s experience could accelerate Malaysia’s adoption of Open RAN. 

Ericsson and Nokia recognise the potential of Open RAN to disrupt the 5G market and are actively embracing it. Ericsson, for instance, has partnered with Dell and Google for open-source software development and has been deploying it in the US. Nokia, while slightly slower to embrace the technology, recently announced its commitment as well. 

While the adoption of Open RAN is still in its early stages, the commitment of major RAN vendors to the technology is a positive sign. This indicates that Open RAN has the potential to become the prevailing RAN technology.  

Japanese model 

The Japanese model also provides a solution for a middle power like Malaysia. It demonstrates that there is a middle path to reaping the economic benefits of 5G while maintaining good relations with both China and the US.  

As Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil rightly stated, each country must prioritise its economy and people. However, it is essential for Putrajaya to exhaust all options before deciding.  

By embracing Open RAN, Malaysia can establish a secure, technologically advanced, and economically sound 5G network, enabling local operators to become future-ready digital providers, especially when it comes to 6G.  

Limitations of Open RAN 

While Open RAN offers exciting possibilities, it is crucial to acknowledge its limitations and consider the challenges that come with this new approach. As a relatively new concept, the technology is still evolving. This means that compared to traditional RAN networks, Open RAN may have fewer mature solutions available. The lack of established practices and standards could pose a steep learning curve for both local operators and vendors as they navigate this uncharted territory. 

Moreover, implementing Open RAN entails integrating hardware and software components from multiple vendors. This multi-vendor approach can increase complexity. Ensuring seamless compatibility and smooth operation between diverse components requires additional effort and expertise. 

While Open RAN aims to introduce cost savings through vendor competition and reduced vendor lock-in, it is important to recognise that the initial deployment costs may be higher. Open RAN often necessitates new infrastructure, integration efforts and retraining staff. 

Another concern is the security implications of Open RAN. As the network incorporates components from various vendors, there is a possibility of security risks. Safeguarding end-to-end security and addressing vulnerabilities across multiple components require further measures and robust security protocols.  

Lastly, the ecosystem of vendors supporting Open RAN is not as extensive as that of traditional RAN networks. This limited vendor pool may impact the availability of specialised equipment or support services. For Malaysian operators, this could pose challenges finding suitable solutions tailored to local conditions and requirements. 

The ongoing discussions over Huawei’s involvement in Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure present an opportunity for the adoption of Open RAN. This innovative approach offers flexibility, security, cost effectiveness and industry support, making it a game changer. 

Looking at Japan’s experience and leveraging on the experiences of local telcos, Malaysia can make an informed decision that aligns economic benefits with national security interests and international relations. 

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