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Transcript: Indian government endorses security by default in Open-RAN 5G networks

The government’s endorsement is in line with its ban on Chinese tech that came into force following Indo-China border skirmishes last year.  

The Indian government on July 28 endorsed a proposal by the Open-RAN forum to have default security standards in telecom gear built under O-RAN standards. The endorsement was first reported by the Economic Times. Open-RAN is a technology stack for telecom operators encouraged by governments around the world seeking to either detach themselves from reliance on Chinese tech, or from paying steep prices for proprietary equipment altogether, for 5G networks.

“As far as the Indian government’s stand is concerned, we welcome the proposal of the O-RAN Forum, and we confirm that it is in keeping with the commitment made by our leaders on March 12 this year to co-operate on the critical technologies of the future to ensure that innovation is consistent with a free, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific,” Lt. Gen. Dr. Rajesh Pant, National Cyber Security Coordinator, said during the Quad Open RAN Forum.

Why it matters? The Indian government and Indian tech companies have supported the development of O-RAN which has emerged as a collaborative solution to the two problems that arise when revamping the telecom equipment landscape for 5G: eliminating reliance on Chinese tech without driving telcos’ costs up dramatically — a high priority, considering that 5G networks generally rely on a larger number of transmitters of a smaller size and reach, driving up costs significantly. Open standards like O-RAN would also help the government fast-track telecom gear submitted to its “trusted telecom” portal, where telcos are required to get state approval for each piece of network equipment they plan on installing in the future.

India and 5G

No telecom service provider offers 5G services in India yet, even though handsets that support the fifth generation of telecom technology have started coming into the country in the premium smartphone segments. Airtel, for one, has started full-fledged trials in at least one location in Mumbai, with India Today reporting wireless internet speeds of 850Mbps. These trials are happening after the Department of Telecommunications in May approved 5G trials across the three major telecom operators, plus MTNL. No 5G spectrum has been sold yet, and telecom operators have expressed concern over the proposed reserve pricing for the airwaves, with a top Airtel executive declaring last October that there was no “business case” at that price point for telcos to roll out 5G. Back then, Airtel India CEO and Managing Director Gopal Vittal had said that 5G in India was two years away, implying that it would be a reality only in 2022–23.

Chinese tech ban: Since the Indo–Chinese border skirmishes which began in May 2020, the government has retaliated by restricting Chinese tech companies. This has included bans on apps like Bytedance’s TikTok and PUBG Mobile, which used to be published by Tencent. Most significantly for the 5G rollout in India, though, the government started taking steps to lock Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese telecom gear makers out from the Indian market, eventually culminating in the National Security Directive on Telecommunication Sector, which required all telecom operators to submit vendor and network component details on a government website, a way of keeping Chinese tech out of new telecom networks.

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Transcript of remarks

What follows is a transcript of Pant’s remarks, edited slightly for clarity. 

Thank you for having me here, and greetings of the day to all the participants of this public event in the Quad Open RAN Forum. The first thing– I’m very impressed with the large number of companies that have participated today in this event. We heard some very exciting and knowledgeable discussions, including the last one from our government representatives; from two of our Quad partners so far.

On all aspects, whether it is the technical performance or the industry CEOs, and one clear conclusion that emerges is that O-RAN is here to stay. And all those who had doubts about compatibility and cost issues need to dispel all their fears. And one example that we can think of is the EMI/EMC standards that have today allowed globally equipment to interwork with each other based on the accreditation done by the accredited labs.

So, if it can be done in EMI/EMC, I’m sure that the interoperability aspect can be handled in O-RAN also. And the concept of the distribution unit and the centralized unit is making proprietary interfaces open. And basically, it is democratizing the networks. Furthermore, the security aspects in O-RAN are based on the zero-trust architecture. And as someone said in a previous webinar we were having, and I quote, he said that “It’s easier to find the cockroaches when the lights are on.”

As far as the Indian government’s stand is concerned, we welcome the proposal of the O-RAN Forum, and we confirm that it is in keeping with the commitment made by our leaders on March 12 this year to co-operate on the critical technologies of the future to ensure that innovation is consistent with a free, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific.

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And recognizing the importance of secure and reliable telecom network infrastructure, we also welcome the opportunity for a discussion between our governments and industry on the development for robust Open-RAN ecosystem and the associated benefits it would provide to our economies.

India is fast-tracking its 5G deployment, and is aware of the open technologies, and the global initiatives which has forced an intention to accelerate the delivery of products that support a common, open architecture, and standardize interfaces that are viewed as the foundation of next generation wireless infrastructure, while assuring a broad community of suppliers driven by innovation and open market competition. Indian telcos such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio are increasingly looking to expand their telecom gear supplier options beyond the traditional equipment vendors by using the O-RAN technology.

We also support the scoping of a sustained public-private dialogue on the Open-RAN between our governments and industry with the potential for participation from industry and governments from across the Indo-Pacific. This dialogue would further complement initiatives being processed under the Quad Critical and Emerging Technologies Working Group. Recently in India, we have conducted two events to promote the Open-RAN and 5G.

One was on June 17, where we conducted an Open-RAN India event, and a little earlier, we had an India Plugfest hosted by Bharti Airtel in which demonstrations from ten companies were put together to showcase O-RAN compliant open fronthaul multi-vendor interworking, the [unclear] system validation, the O-RAN compliant X2 interface, and radio intelligent controller use cases compliant with O-RAN 1 and A2 interfaces for network performance optimization combining machine learning and radio intelligence.

So finally, we in the government of India, are absolutely clear that open and virtualized RAN are the future of mobile networks. We have also promoted Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat, as it is called in India, and also issued a directive for the trusted telecom products from trusted sources to address the supply chain issue.

Finally, in view of our shared attributes as political democracies, market economies, and pluralist state societies, the Quad provides a strong case of co-operation in Open-RAN. To that extent, I compliment the organizers of today’s event and would like to sign off with two points of advice to my industry friends.

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Firstly: Let us create a time-bound roadmap at the earliest, a point that was also discussed in the previous panel, and secondly, please ensure that security by design in the various components of Open-RAN is implemented so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. With that thought, thank you very much for giving me this honour, and I wish the event all success. Jai Hind. Thank you.

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