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The future of telecom security: Opportunities and challenges

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

Today’s communication networks power economies, revolutionise societies, empower businesses and are vital for future nation growth. But these networks are also constantly exposed to persistent and complex cyber threats from a wide variety of vectors. As such, and quite rightly, they have been classified as critical national infrastructure of a national security concern.

The creation of the ‘High Risk Vendor’ category and subsequently the UK government’s numerous decisions concerning Huawei reflects the need for all operators to raise security standards. In particular, to combat the range of threats, whether from cyber criminals or state sponsored attacks.

The government’s focus for the decision has been on Huawei’s role in 5G networks with digital secretary Oliver Dowden stating in November that ‘5G’s full potential can only be realised if we have confidence in the security and resilience of the infrastructure that underpins it’. However, the impact from the decisions being made and actions being taken, resonate across the entire telecom network infrastructure. Furthermore, the government could also choose to add other suppliers to its list of high-risk vendors and implement similar bans for them at any point.

While it is understandable from a security perspective to protect national critical infrastructure, the move does create a near to mid-term gap. It is one that must be filled with a quality alternative that can provide the technology, resilience and integrity needed to power the UK’s future critical communications infrastructure. These alternative suppliers also need to keep up with the pace of change driven by trends such as the wider rollout of 5G, faster and more accessible broadband, Industrial and consumer IoT, smart communities and so on. This pace of change brings even greater complexity to an already byzantine undertaking.

Heterogeneous, interoperable, scalable and secure

So, what’s the solution? The government is fully aware that the decision to declare Huawei a HRV and remove its equipment from all future networks has meant that the UK is now more or less reliant on two mobile access network equipment suppliers - Nokia and Ericsson. In order to address this, it published the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy in November 2020. The report focuses on three core areas, detailing how the government plans to support incumbent suppliers; attract new suppliers into the UK market; and accelerate the development and deployment of open-interface solutions.

It’s clear that the government firmly believes that this is a global, rather than a domestic issue where a coalition - led by the UK - is needed to find a lasting and sustainable solution to the problem. Collaboration is always a good course of action, but by doing so it is putting too much of a focus on alternative suppliers from other countries. The UK government potentially risks missing out on the fact that this could be a significant opportunity for home grown talent to step up, take control and fill the gap.

The UK has an impressive heritage in developing innovative technology and deploying world class services to telecoms operators worldwide. Companies that can stand as trusted partners, and not just offer a like-for-like replacement, can be instrumental in using this as an opportunity to meet the demands that modern telcos face and helping simplify their networks at the same time.

It’s also worth noting that the Telecoms Security Review also discussed the fact that: ‘we also need to avoid a situation where broadband operators are reliant on a single supplier for their equipment’ and this will likely apply to all UK telecoms providers in due course. As such, operators need to ensure that they can architect and implement a network that is not only heterogeneous, but interoperable, scalable and has security woven into every aspect of the infrastructure from the edge right the way to the core. Working more with UK-based partners and suppliers helps operators ensure that they can not only meet these demands, but do so quickly and efficiently, thereby enhancing the quality of service for their customers.

Encouraging homegrown solutions

With all eyes on the UK’s post-pandemic recovery strategy, perhaps some of the an initial £250 million earmarked for the 5G Diversification Strategy, could be directed towards helping UK suppliers. This type of internal investment in research, development and hardware production would also come at a particularly opportune moment. Not only would a more homegrown approach alleviate many of the concerns that led to the UK government’s decision regarding Huawei (and any other future HRVs), but it would be a net positive for the wider economy by fostering local talent, investing in local businesses and improving our standing as a global leader in innovation.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced how critical today’s network infrastructure is - delivering significant socio-economic as well as economic benefits. This extends from keeping us entertained and allowing many of us to work from home, right the way through to the critical elements of medical and government organisations. It is abundantly clear that communication and connectivity is intricately woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Being able to work with suppliers as an inherently trusted partner is going to be a major consideration for telecoms providers going forward. There needs to be total confidence in the resilience, as well as security, of the infrastructure being to help them maintain these crucial networks

While the challenges of building secure future communications networks are significant, those challenges must be elegantly resolved for progress to continue. Ensuring trust and security is maintained in these new networks is without doubt one of the most important questions of the next decade that we need to resolve.

It is vital that the UK government continues on its quest to ‘lay the foundations for a world-class telecoms security framework, that will ensure that the UK’s critical national infrastructure remains safe and secure - both now and in the future’. But, encouraging homegrown solutions to global challenges not only offers improved security at home, it also provides the opportunity for the UK to take a global lead in future communications network rollouts. Something the government cannot ignore as we roll into 2021.

Martin Rudd, CTO, Telesoft Technologies

Martin Rudd is the CTO of Telesoft Technologies, a UK company specialising in cyber security for high-density cyber environments, including network and government organisations.