For the longest time now, the mobile network operators (MNOs) have had a pretty easy time of it. For the most part, they have been able to do what they want with little consequence. Even nefarious activities such as hidden charges, illegal use of data, mismanagement of government funds, overcharging, false advertising, etc. are met with little, if any, punitive action. Until recently, their model has remained fairly static – both in what they do and what they should not do.
The model has been physical; hardware-based, monolithic infrastructure, technology-specific legacy hardware and protocols, siloed technology islands, and a communistic approach to service level agreements and contracts. And that model has served them well.
However, the progress made in the last two or three years in the expanse of advanced 4G technologies and the rollout of 5G is forcing them to change the way they operate. The pressure on them to close the digital divide, offer open and unmitigated access to service (Net Neutrality), enable dynamic spectrum management, and more (private wireless, URLLC, unlicensed integration, etc.) are forcing them to migrate to the cloud. Platforms such as virtual RAN and software defined networks (SDN) are the only way they can offer what the future is bringing.
The MNO cloud model will be interesting. The move to mobile edge computing (MEC) will require an overhaul of their established infrastructure.
The cloud will offer the MNOs a whole new playing field. One that will be required to both offer and keep up with new and existing platforms. Data will increase logarithmically so new frequency management will have to be done digitally via technologies such as dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). Signals will also have to be more precise, and power and directionality will have to be controlled with the implementation of multiple-user MIMO antennas.
There are other challenges, but the bottom line is that having the control at the tower cannot manage all that will be required – especially with 5G. Therefore, the only solution will be cloud-native. Doing so will enable the MNOs to be efficient and agile, in order to offer competitive services and to meet the demands of the next generation of wireless.
On the flip side, the cloud model will offer huge benefit for MNOs. In fact, to realize them there is no other way. Processes that will be necessary include high levels of automation, on-demand scalability (a big one), rapid innovation, and rapid rollout of new features and services. None of this can be provided at the scale required without the cloud.
Now, all that being said, among all the challenges, the biggest one will be security. With MEC a new attack surfaces, surface (no pun intended). Couple that with the ever-increasing sophistication of bad actors and that becomes a monumental undertaking. They also will need to secure any applications running from the cloud. This will not be just data in, data out, as has been the case with physical hardware.
As well, the telco cloud will not be a single bounded space. It will consist of a multi-cloud environment. That will likely be a mix of public and private clouds. That will be particularly true with MEC environments. If the MNO is the cloud handler, they will be responsible for edge security along with cloud security. MECs can be implemented via the MNO’s own internal cloud technology/environment, such as OpenStack, VMware, and Kubernetes, or it can deploy public cloud solutions for MEC—such as AWS Wavelength and Azure Edge Zone.
There is a lot more to this under the covers. I decided not to do a heavy drill-down because the individual elements are many and each has a great deal of complexity. These include things like sockets, APIs, the integration of AI and machine learning (ML), real-time monitoring and reporting, and automated and zero-second threat response).
Because the telco cloud will be gigantic, a failure in any component has the potential to create a cloud-wide disaster if not properly secured. Therefore, in this case, perhaps more so than many, security must be integrated at the ground level and every level from the ground up. There will not be much room for after the fact hindsight.
For the MNOs to make this shift successfully and envelop it with security will mean they have to have a change in mindset – a mindset that has been in place for some time. There are signs that this is happening but, not as quickly or completely as will be required. It will also require a significant investment to do this right.
In the end, they do not have a choice. If they do not make this shift, the wireless ecosystem will grind to a halt with all the functions, platforms, and apps that will be riding on the new wireless infrastructure. If they skimp on security, the results can be disastrous. Not just for the consumer but for every player in the game, from the largest government and business users to the smallest households and individuals.
Seamless security should be integrated as part of the telco cloud’s overall business plan so that the users feel secure and there is no vessel for breaches such as the ones we have seen lately by nefarious actors. If ever there was a call for multi-layer, multi-domain, multi-tenant, and real-time-continuous security, control, and protection, this is it.