Prague 5G security debates center on China, open RAN

The second annual Prague 5G Security Conference, hosted by the Czech Republic but held virtually, occurred mostly behind password-protected computer screens around the world this week. But the few public statements issued alongside the event focused on the security threat from China and how open RAN technology could improve 5G security.

The issue is noteworthy considering last year's Prague security conference produced a 5G cybersecurity framework known as the Prague Proposals, which were designed to create a global approach to security for next-generation wireless networks. The proposals cover topics ranging from technologies to economics to government policies, and include stipulations such as open and transparent financing for networks, the sharing of best practices, and the need to "regularly conduct vulnerability assessments and risk mitigation."

Government officials from 32 countries, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) participated in the initial Prague 5G Security Conference last year.

The Czech government said that around 1,100 participants were invited to this year's conference, which featured statements from the likes of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Home Secretary Peter Dutton and European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová.

A Czech spokesperson said this year's conference was mostly a private event, and that the only public documents that will be released will be officials' opening and closing speeches.

However, officials from the US and the UK released the transcripts of their presentations to the conference, and both mentioned the security threat from Chinese vendors and the potential for open RAN technology to improve the security situation around 5G.

"Open Radio Access Networks, or open RANs, could transform 5G network architecture, costs and security," said US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in his remarks at the conference. He noted the FCC recently hosted a forum on open RAN and found that "open RAN technologies are already showing great promise in the US and around the world, and that the public and private sectors should continue to collaborate to help encourage their deployment."

However, Pai spent much of his address discussing the actions the FCC has taken against Chinese companies ranging from China Mobile to Huawei. He also named the other countries and network operators that have taken similar actions against Chinese companies. "Telefonica in Spain, Orange in France, Jio in India, Telstra in Australia, SK and KT in South Korea, NTT in Japan, and the telecom operators in Canada and Singapore, as well as many others, have made the decision to only use trusted vendors in their 5G deployments," he said.

Concluded Pai: "As I engage with other communications regulators around the world, the Prague Principles have been an important part of our discussions about protecting 5G networks."

Matt Warman, the UK's minister for digital infrastructure, made similar comments. "A new national security direction power will require [UK] operators to comply with specific controls in relation to individual high risk vendors," he said in a tacit nod to the country's new Huawei ban.

But he said the UK's security efforts will stretch beyond that ban to include efforts to secure the telecom supply chain, to encourage additional research and development, and to foster the entry of new suppliers.

"I am encouraged by the progress that [the telecom] industry is making to bring forward the development of technologies such as open RAN," Warman said, specifically nodding to Vodafone's announcement of its first open RAN site in the UK.

"But achieving our long-term vision for diversification is not something that the UK can achieve alone. This is a global issue. We believe we all have a shared responsibility to address the current failure in the telecommunications supply market," Warman added. "It will require a collaborative, coordinated and concerted effort from a range of like-minded international partners – working in lock-step with industry – to overcome the current barriers to diversification."

It appears that the annual Prague 5G Security Conference will remain an event geared toward rallying countries opposed to Chinese 5G vendors. And it could also turn into another driving force behind the new open RAN trend.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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