O-RAN Alliance turns its attention to 6G and certification

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Jun 29, 2022

  • O-RAN Alliance has provided an update on its progress
  • The Alliance has created a next-generation research group to kickstart its 6G work
  • There is increased focus on network security and ETSI is about to approve a fronthaul spec
  • The Alliance is also adding to its test centre locations and is about to start issuing certificates and badges of compliance to vendors

The O-RAN Alliance has formed a next-generation research group (the nGRG) that will “focus on the research of open and intelligent RAN [radio access network] principles in 6G and other future network standards,” Andre Fuetsch, the Alliance’s chairman and CTO of AT&T Services, announced this morning as he and fellow O-RAN Alliance representatives provided an update of the industry organisation’s efforts during a webcast session.

The nGRG, which aims to ensure that Open RAN technology not only supports 5G and 5G-Advanced but evolves in a way that will support 6G, is in the process of being formed. It will be headed up by two co-chairs from network operators and another two from the vendor community, and has five research streams to explore initially (more on this later). 

The alliance reps provided various updates on work related to security and the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) and associated applications, as well as highlighting the many areas where there is still a great deal of work to be done to make Open RAN a viable alternative to traditional RAN systems.

But the likes of AT&T, Orange, NTT Docomo, Vodafone and others are absolutely convinced that all of the time and effort put into developing Open RAN specifications, designs, blueprints and models will be worth it (even if figuring out the total cost of ownership of an Open RAN architecture is still something the industry needs and wants but is as yet unable to determine – see Open RAN community needs to focus on TCO models and security: Poll result.

And there are plenty of companies pitching in to help figure it out. Fuetsch said more than 340 companies and institutions are now involved in the alliance’s work and that a set of 52 technical documents, of which 12 are new titles, are about to be released as part of the O-RAN release 2.0 specifications. 

RIC and telco cloud functionalities are addressed in that dozen, while three of those new titles are “dealing with security of different parts of the O-RAN architecture. The O-RAN Alliance has always taken security very seriously,” stated Fuetsch, perhaps reacting to the oft-cited criticism that Open RAN architectures will be a security nightmare for operators. 

“We have recently converted the security focus group into O-RAN’s 11th technical workgroup to allow even more intensive specification efforts in the field of security,” noted Fuetsch, who added that the alliance is working closely with “other industry bodies to avoid inconsistencies or duplicative work. The first O-RAN specification covering open fronthaul is in the process of being approved by ETSI [European Telecommunications Standards Institute] as a publicly available specification,” added the AT&T man.  

[Reader note: That spec is the O-RAN fronthaul control, user and synchronization plane specification, which was submitted earlier this year for potential adoption by the ETSI Technical Committee Mobile Standards Group through the ETSI PAS (Publicly Available Specifications) process.]

And in an effort to boost the testing, checking and verification capabilities that accompany any new technology developments, the O-RAN Alliance is adding to the current quota of open testing and integration centres (OTICs). There are currently six OTICs in operation (four in Europe, two in Asia-Pacific), but another one has recently been approved, noted Alex Jinsung Choi, chief operating officer of the alliance and senior vice president of strategy and technology innovation at Deutsche Telekom. 

“We have seen great interest from labs all around the world to be co-opted. Recently the O-RAN board approved the seventh OTICs,” added Choi. That lab is the Kyrio facility that is hosted by CableLabs in Louisville, Colorado, while another two (one on the east coast of the US and another in Japan) are on course to be approved by the end of 2022.

Choi noted that three of the current OTICs (in Taiwan, Madrid and the US) were recently involved in the spring plugfest that had more than 45 companies participating. The autumn/fall plugfest host locations will be selected soon, with the i14y lab in Berlin tipped to be one of the locations – see i14y Open RAN lab preps Lab-as-a-Service operations.

The OTICs are also at the heart of the O-RAN Alliance’s certification and badging programme, which will provide network operators with the assurance that technology products and applications are ready for deployment in an Open RAN-based network.

Choi said the Alliance has now launched that certification and badging programme: he explained that the O-RAN certificates state that the equipment or function tested conforms to O-RAN specifications, while the badging programme relates to interoperability and multi-vendor, end-to-end testing scenarios. The certificates and badges will be issued by the OTICs.

Chih-Lin I, co-chair of O-RAN Alliance Technical Steering Committee and China Mobile chief scientist of wireless technologies at the China Mobile Research Institute, noted that some of the OTICs are ready to start issuing certificates and badges as soon as the third quarter of this year.   

She also provided additional detail about the nGRG. The five “top-priority research streams” are 6G use cases and “standards gap analysis”, native security, native and cross-domain AI, an architecture design that can evolve towards 6G, platforms and evaluation and methodologies for next-generation concepts. Among the research streams to be addressed later are sustainability and management. 

As well as ensuring the group’s work dovetails with efforts being undertaken by the ITU-R and 3GPP, “we would like to engage broadly the academic community so that we can have really a forward-looking research initiative,” added Chih-Lin. Indeed, the hope is that the nGRG’s technical oversight committee will have three members of the academic community as well as six representatives from the operator community, six from vendors, and one from a hyperscaler. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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