2019 was an important year for mobile network security. Only a few years ago putting the words “mobile telecommunications security” in an article title would be a licence to write anything as no one would read past the title. 5G has changed this and 5G security has become a popular and significant topic. Presidents, prime ministers, and regulators placed it on the agenda and discussions took place throughout 2019. In 2020, its relevance is only going to increase.
Why the Focus on Security?
There is a clear geo–political aspect to 5G security, but this only partially explains the shift in focus. Fundamentally, security for 5G is now an important topic as 5G is set to become a prominent feature of many more parts of our lives. In addition to mobile telecommunications networks, the expected use of 5G as a fundamental enabler of manufacturing, healthcare, smart cities, industry, agriculture and several other applications makes it a strategically vital part of a country’s infrastructure. 5G is expected to alter the role of mobile networks from their current focus of moving data from one place to another, to performing additional control functions. While losing the ability to move data is significant, losing the ability to control – or to have it transferred to another entity – is strategically important.
2019 has seen the first round of 5G network launches. These have mostly focused on MNOs being able to claim to have a 5G network, although coverage has been limited and localised to a handful of cities. Moving into 2020, these launches will continue, and MNOs will start to extend their 5G networks significantly. Driven by new spectrum availability – particularly at lower frequencies – and more 5G compatible handsets coming to market, further rollout of the technology will ensure that security discussions are made relevant for both public and private networks.
5G private networks are built by businesses to help operations run more efficiently and facilitate tasks and processes that would be difficult or impossible without a dedicated 5G network. 5G private networks are expected to grow rapidly in 2020. Unlike consumer uses for 5G, where the applications are currently less clear, the use cases for 5G in industry, manufacturing, transport, healthcare and enterprise are varied and compelling. As a result, we are going to see a lot more companies installing and operating 5G mobile network equipment to take advantage of the benefits.
The debates concerning Huawei 5G network equipment are yet to be resolved. Tensions between the US government and Huawei remain acute and other governments will have to decide one way or the other, as the pressure to roll out 5G networks mounts. A middle of the road approach that tries to keep everyone happy is likely to fail when it comes to the details of implementation.
What to Expect from Regulatory Decisions in 2020?
With a continued focus on and need for security, regulators and governments are going to have to start making decisions on their approaches to regulating (or not) the security of new 5G networks in 2020. Some will rely on existing frameworks and approaches; others will be introducing new rules. Decisions will also be needed on equipment vendors.
While mobile network security has traditionally been a concern just for MNOs and vendors, the expected proliferation of new operators of private networks means that more companies will have an interest in the development of regulation in this area. This will require them to engage with telecommunications regulators, possibly for the first time, and it is important that this engagement is effective. This will mean ensuring their voices and concerns are heard as frameworks designed with only mobile network operators in mind, which are applied to operators of 5G private networks, are unlikely to work well for these new operators.