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Security concerns should be addressed before adopting 5G: Airtel

The government assured it is going through all issues, adding that concerns will be addressed through the Personal Data Protection Bill.

ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 05, 2019, 08.48 AM IST
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Mobile phone operator Bharti Airtel has cautioned that security concerns should be placated before adopting 5G in India, even if it means pushing the roll out of the new technology back by 12-18 months.

Telecom equipment making rivals Nokia and Huawei both countered, saying the security aspects shouldn’t be overplayed, and that India should not waste time before adopting 5G. But both differed on the broader issue around security, with the Finnish company saying security around 5G was also a geopolitical matter, and not just a matter of technology, with “trust” in the gear supplier of crucial importance. China’s Huawei – under pressure across the world due to alleged security concerns due to its perceived proximity to the Chinese government and fighting to gain trust of countries like India – though downplayed the issue, saying it was a “a technical issue, not a political one”.

The government though assured it is raking through all such issues around the next gen technology, adding that concerns around security with respect to apps will be addressed through the Personal Data Protection Bill.

"We should not plunge into this (5G), we should take next 12-18 months, study this thoroughly, do a bunch of trials, to make sure we really understand this beast thoroughly,” Gopal Vittal, CEO-India South Asia for Bharti Airtel, said at ET Telecom 5G Congress held last week.

Requesting the authorities to not rush into deploying 5G without the right security architecture, Vittal elaborated that whether it was getting the right security architecture on the device side, the radio side, access side or core side, India must have the right security architecture and policy to guard its interest.

The government though is resolute that it is looking into safety of 5G, ticking off all security checkboxes.

"Telcos have been mandated as per the licensing conditions how they have to deal with the data...Yes, there are concerns in OTT (over-the-top, or app) players and third-party solution (providers), and data protection will be in place," said R Shakya, deputy director general (security) at the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).

"We will strengthen and have more building blocks… The approach towards the security of the networks is very simple. We believe it is safe to connect," Shakya said at a panel discussion. Shakya was part of a panel on Policy and Regulatory Challenges in India's 5G Journey that was moderated by Prashant Singhal, TMT (TECH MEDIA TELECOM) emerging markets leader at EY.

Sanjay Malik, Nokia’s head of the India market, though underplayed the criticality of security issues around 5G.

"Don't overburden 5G from security perspective. Yes, there will be little bit more threat in 5G but at same time, from 5G launching perceptive, let us not overburden with policy and security aspects. Maybe it needs to be seen in terms of more than just network security, (but also the) geopolitical situation," he said.

Malik added that beyond increased encryptions and incremental measures taken, “trust” that firms are doing all to take care of security will play a part.

“This, especially because 5G software runs into millions of codes and it is not practical to test every single one of the pieces (codes). How much is the trust worthiness of the provider?," asked Malik.

Huawei India CEO Jay Chen countered, saying network security in the 5G context is “a technical issue, not a political one”, which he believes people in the Indian government are increasingly aware of. He added that network security challenges can be handled by framing universal security standards, equipment testing and even thrashing out legal arrangements.

Chen also said 5G technology was also a lot more secure than 2G, 3G, or 4G due to its unique architecture, and its encryption codes can only be broken by quantum computers of the future.

Huawei India’s CEO said there is no time to lose as there are already 26 commercial 5G networks worldwide as we speak, which is likely to rise to 60 by the year-end, adding that there would also be 1 million 5G base stations in China alone by next year.
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