6 takeaways for physical telecom security

Six things you need to know about physical security in critical telecommunications networks and towers, listed by telecom vertical experts Davin Smyth from Abloy Africa headquarters in Johannesburg and Juan Noriega, Solution Manager at Abloy CI in Bogotá.

We at Abloy have for decades had the opportunity to follow the developments in the telecom sector when working with some of the biggest network operators around the world. We also have long traditions in serving smaller, local network providers, such as fibre network provider ZeFil in France. We’d like to share some of the recent security-related developments that are typical for the telecom industry.

To understand the evolving needs of physical security in the telecom sector, it’s good to understand some of the biggest trends in the industry.

1.   Protecting telecom infrastructure is a race against ever-evolving risks

Since March this year, a significant share of the workforce around the world suddenly started working remotely from their homes. Telecommunications connections have ever since been more congested than usual.

The worldwide pandemic has also caused some worrying, unconventional security threats. In April, a conspiracy against 5G telecom technology spread across Europe, and dozens of serious arson attacks on telecom masts were reported.

Practices used by criminal groups is ever changing, and so preventing security technologies must keep abreast of constantly evolving market needs. In South Africa, for example, where there are more sophisticated crime syndicates compared to other regions on the continent, valuable equipment is being illegally sold over borders. This is a typical threat for telecom and tower companies.

2.   Telecom is the new utility – treasure it like one

But looking at industry trends in the longer perspective, one significant shift is that telecom is increasingly falling into the same utility space as electricity, gas, water and so forth. Telecom is a critical infrastructure regulated in several regions around the world. Telecommunication outages impact societies, including industries and government.

We see this evidently in the current pandemic: without telecom service providers, we would be unable to secure business continuity, communication and easy information gathering – in the pandemic itself for government containment, for example.

Accordingly, the telecom infrastructure needs to be secured with technology that is both robust and accessible enough.

3.    5G brings more critical locking points that need to be secured

Another development is that new 5G mobile networks will be changing the landscape of infrastructure and the items that need to be secured. International Data Corporation (IDC) has forecast that the worldwide 5G network infrastructure market will rocket from $528 million in 2018 to $26 billion in 2022.

The range of 5G radio waves is lower than of earlier generations, so they need more signal to cover the service area. Therefore, the new technology requires both new kinds of cell sites and also more sites to cover the service area.

But 5G technology is changing the markets in many verticals, not only within telecom. 5G will boost a lot of technologies, connecting more and more devices. In 2025, energy and utilities are forecast to make up about 15.7 percent of the global 5G infrastructure market, a survey by BIS Research shows. This means there will be more critical locking points to be covered and secured.

5G will also bring the Internet of Things (IoT) to the next level. In Telecoms.com’s 2019 Annual Industry Survey Report, 81 percent of 540 global telecommunication professionals believed that after home automation, smart cities is the IoT market with the greatest opportunities for them. The next most potential market was utilities with 62 percent.

To sum up, the owners of infrastructure will need more flexibility to grant access to their ever-increasing number of stakeholders that need access to their numerous sites.

4.   Increasing site sharing complicates access management

A clear trend in telecom is the so-called infrastructure or site sharing. Government regulators in many markets encourage or demand network operators to share their sites and collaborate with other operators. This means there is a multitude of people that need to access not only the main gates to the shared sites, but also separate assets owned by various operators inside the shared sites. However, as the telecom operators are not owning but renting the space in infrastructure environments, site access is controlled by a third party. This makes access management more complex.

In these cases, access management based only on traditional mechanical keys can be difficult. Instead, locking solutions without fully digital keys used with a mobile app, such as ABLOY® BEAT, allow many operators at the same site to conveniently grant access to their respective technical  maintenance people and field service engineers. Technical teams can be proactively granted access in order to perform their work tasks. Alternatively, users themselves can ask for access rights by raising tickets in a request management system.

A benefit with the BEAT access platform is that it can be integrated with other existing workflow solutions in use. This way, you will be able to conveniently allow access to your critical sites only when needed.

Another advantage with BEAT’s integrability with other workflow solutions is that it will help businesses to automatically notice anomalies in their security workflow. Telecom companies today have less time to worry about what happens on the infrastructure sites. They do not have the time to check all audit trails or event logs for exceptions. Instead, if a lock that is integrated into the system has not been re-secured, the network operations centre (NOC) would automatically see the latest status. 

5.   Don’t exclude any security solution providers from the ecosystem

There are some pitfalls that you can avoid when you are thinking about improving the safety of your telecommunications infrastructure. Your security system should be all-inclusive, allowing a full range of products. Having various providers and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in the same room makes your security stronger.

Telecom companies often choose to work only with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), but these may be unable to offer the advantages that the latest digital locks without physical keys bring, for instance. The operator can buy a security product, but will the solution comply to all local or international approvals and standards what comes to, say, encryption or Bluetooth broadcasting capabilities? Will there be local support available in the market? And so forth.

By using many brands, the telecom company will not have to compromise on hardware capabilities but will have better chances to keep both its security compliance and its security level up to date.

To conclude, you should not lock yourself by buying only what you need today but think about what you will be needing in the future as well. So, work with your providers and OEMs jointly to come up with a solution that is relevant for you – to secure everything from the sites’ main gates and shelter doors to power generators and fuel tanks.

 6.   Instead of throwing out all your legacy security technologies, integrate them with new ones

One telecom company we recently talked to said they will discard all their current security systems when updating their network into the 5G era. What they did not know, was that new, digital locking solutions talk to earlier locking platforms.

Our new keyless ABLOY BEAT, for example, can be integrated to most existing security solutions in use. It works in perfect unison with other solutions in our ABLOY digital portfolio, also including electromechanical (PROTEC2 CLIQ) and mechanical (ABLOY® PROTEC2) options. All these three solutions can be managed with the same visual ABLOY® OS interface.

In other words, you don’t have to move everything into digital at once but have a hybrid security ecosystem instead. In shared sites a hybrid system that combines mechanical, electromechanical and digital options will be an attractive option for many telecom companies.

The solution we offer to tackle the above-mentioned challenges is our new ABLOY BEAT that consists of a mobile app with a digital key, a Super Weather Proof Bluetooth® padlock and the visual ABLOY OS user interface. All keys, locks and access rights are managed with ABLOY OS.