Securing New 5G Physical Assets With Electronic Access Control

August 12, 2019 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

With the introduction of 5G, networking equipment, storage and computing hardware, other valuable infrastructure will now be located closer to the end user, increasing the need for advanced physical security.

By Mike Fahy, Commercial Product Manager, Electronic Access Solutions, Southco, Inc.

The 5G era of mobile computing and communications is rapidly moving forward. 5G stands for the fifth generation of wireless infrastructure—a massive upscale of network technology. It will provide data transfer rates faster than the blink of an eye, reducing latency for even the most data-hungry applications, high bandwidth and greater opportunities for connectivity and reliability.

Within the next four years, global spending on 5G infrastructure will exceed $10 billion.[1] A majority of leading telecommunications providers have committed to launching 5G commercially by 2020. Of the 15 largest providers worldwide, nine have public plans to launch 5G by this date, including all of the major providers in the United States, China and Japan.

This high-value, cutting-edge, digital cell technology will be woven through and added to our existing physical telecommunications environment. However, it’s not just a simple upgrade of existing cellular base stations and antennas.

5G cells are generally referred to as small cell wireless facilities (SWF). They are much smaller than typical enclosures, with dimensions that enable them to attach to walls and streetlight poles—or can even be integrated into the pole itself.

With the introduction of 5G, networking equipment, storage and computing hardware, other valuable infrastructure will now be located closer to the end user, increasing the need for advanced, physical security.

Electronic Access Solutions (EAS) provide versatile security for small cells and other 5G equipment, as well as offering an intelligent way to efficiently and comprehensively manage physical access to these systems.

Electronic access systems consist of integrated electromechanical locks and latches that can be used to secure enclosures in remote locations. Networked electronic access control systems provide significant benefits for physical security management, providing simplified credential management and audit trail monitoring for small cells.

Securing Distributed Technology

Like other utilities, such as cable companies and power companies, telecommunications companies have their equipment installed throughout our urban landscape, in cities and suburban housing developments, commercial and industrial locations, along roads and highways—even the most remote locations.

The physical components of our digital world share two common attributes:

  • The remote equipment they deploy is secured in enclosures designed to protect the valuable technology that enables functional wireless networks.
  • This remote equipment needs to be accessed by a variety of personnel performing routine maintenance and service tasks.

These enclosures are present throughout our world—ubiquitous and utilitarian; they almost disappear from view unless you are seeking them out.

5G small cells will be adding a whole new denser layer of equipment to our world. At their core, small cells are wireless transmitters and receivers designed to provide greater network capacity in smaller areas. While current high power “macro” towers send signals across an entire city, they lack the ability to support the data running through these networks. Global mobile data traffic will increase seven-fold by 2022 due to the continuing development of Internet of Things (IOT) technology.[2]

As the number of devices connecting to the current networks increases, so does the demand for data. Current network infrastructure might provide coverage to all of these devices, but will lack the wireless density to support fast data transfer—ultimately slowing down devices. This explains why an individual might have full signal but still experience slow connection speeds. This is where small cells come in. Small cells multiply wireless density by only servicing a limited area, reducing the likelihood that a small cell will be overwhelmed. This enables networks to meet the data demands from multiple devices at the same time.

There are two key ways our environment will be affected by the launch 5G SWFs:

  • These small cells are about the size of a picnic cooler or mini-fridge, with similar sized antennas.
  • To provide the bandwidth and service performance the 5G network is designed to offer, they will typically be installed much closer together, which means there will be many more 5G SWFs installed.

Many of these smaller cells have already been deployed to support 4G network service. And many more will be installed as 5G is rolled out through 2020. Until recently, most small cells secured with a basic physical lock were accessed by a key—one that is easily duplicated, thus presenting a security risk.

These SWFs will need to be routinely accessed by service technicians, sometimes from several different companies or subcontractors. Many telecom enclosures use multiple padlocks with different keys assigned to different vendors, an inefficient and vulnerable method for securing the unit.

Securing these widely dispersed systems is crucial, especially since most are located within reach of the public, are (for the most part) unattended and are at significant risk for vandalism and theft. These enclosures are often targets for thieves seeking valuable materials, such as batteries, copper wire and other electronic components.

One further danger associated with vandalism and theft is downtime. When equipment in these enclosures is damaged due to theft or vandalism, that node on the network goes down. Bringing it back online requires emergency repair dispatch and new components, combined with the costs associated with downtime of any network segment. Investing in more secure locking systems, such as electromechanical locks and latches can save on these significant downtime costs.

Upgrading Enclosure Security

Electronic access solutions provide an effective physical security solution for these new enclosures. Compared to mechanical locks, which must be accessed by a physical key, EAS provides a digital credential that can be easily issued, traced and even revoked from anywhere in the world.

An electronic access solution is composed of three primary components: an access control reader or input device, an electromechanical lock and a controller for monitoring the status of the access point. When designing an EAS, choosing the appropriate electronic lock for the specific enclosure will provide the intelligence, flexibility and security needed for the small cell.

The most basic type of electronic access credential is an RFID card, which is widely used in many building management and technician management operations today. Many telecom service providers and the contractor vendors who service them already use RFID cards for accessing central and local offices, data centers and other operational locations.

Concealed electronic access solutions, like Southco’s  AC-EM-10 series provide an effective physical security solution for small cell enclosures. The sealed AC-EM-10 features a compact design that takes up minimal application space and facilitates the electronic actuation of mechanical latches.

Another form of access credential is an electronic PIN code which can be changed on a recurring basis, with different codes assigned to each individual. This makes the credential more personal. The downside is that PINs are easily shared and lost or forgotten, which can complicate maintenance activities and add security risks.

The most secure access credential is one with more than one layer, and is unique to the individual and easily modified through cloud-based systems. For example, an EAS platform that supplies an electronic, time-based key via a mobile app on a technician’s smartphone has the following layers of personalization:

  • The phone and phone number are unique to the technician. Some smartphones today actually have biometric-type security that uses a thumbprint or facial recognition scans to unlock the phone.
  • The smartphone app the technician uses to download the key from the cloud platform is secure and password protected.
  • The electronic key loaded to the app is site- and event-specific. It can only be used to open a specific enclosure, and only for a scheduled period of time.

When combined with a robust, secure intelligent electronic lock, these cloud-based access controllers can provide simple solutions for providing time-based access control to 5G small cells.

Audit trails generated by electronic access solutions provide telecom management with an additional resource: They can track when a 5G small cell door is opened in order to monitor maintenance and service activity. If a 5G cell is scheduled for activity that should take an hour, but the audit trail shows the enclosure access panel was open for far longer, management can find out why the delay occurred and exercise better management of service personnel and costs for service.

EAS is a scalable solution that is applicable when needing to add electronic access to a large number of distributed enclosures. Some enclosure manufacturers and end users have a perception that these electronic access solutions require significant hardware, IT investment and ongoing support. However, there are EAS platforms that can provide secure access and control without having to wire into a network or install additional hardware or software. As a result, electronic access solutions can be used to elevate the physical security of 5G enclosures with minimal cost and complexity.

On the Pole or in the Pole

Many new 5G SWFs will be attached to streetlights and utility poles, as they are already pre-equipped to meet the needs of 5G small cells. They have the proper height (no more than 50 feet), already have power and are often close to telecom fiber optic lines, which is the backhaul network connectivity for the 5G cells.

At this juncture, most 5G SWFs are boxes attached to the light poles at sufficient height to provide line-of-sight connectivity to the surrounding cells. However, there is a growing trend to adapt the poles themselves as the enclosure. In some cases, this is done by building the enclosure into an ornamental base; in others, the solution is to install equipment up through the length of the pole.

For enclosure manufacturers, this presents an engineering and aesthetic challenge. Many municipalities have zoning regulations defining physical and visual characteristics of street fixtures like poles. These codes (particularly in historic locations, city centers and commercial locations) set equipment design criteria to minimize the “intrusion” of network equipment into established settings.

Telecom providers are encouraging enclosure manufacturers to incorporate hardware that complements the industrial design of SWFs, like Southco’s E6 Constant Torque Positioning Hinge series, which provides superior durability in harsh outdoor environments and improves aesthetics.

The telecom providers seeking to install 5G networks are encouraging enclosure manufactures to design external elements, like access panels, hinges and latches, to be more attractive by using hardware that’s flush-mounted, concealed and inconspicuous.

With equipment that is installed within the length of the pole, there may be a need to have two or more access panels tied to different pieces of cell equipment. Enclosure manufacturers can benefit from working with component suppliers who can supply or custom-modify hinges and electromechanical locks to have form factors that satisfy these requirements.

Conclusion

5G technology promises a major transformation in the way our networked, mobile computing world operates. Newly emerging concepts such as autonomous vehicles and smart cities will need the bandwidth and millisecond response time 5G offers to move from vision to reality. The IoT will also demand more bandwidth: It’s estimated that there were 8.4 billion connected “things” in 2016, which is expected to grow to 20.4 billion connected elements by 2020.[3]

As 5G equipment is deployed, it needs to be both fully secured and easily accessed on an ongoing basis. Electronic access solutions provide significant benefits for physical security management, providing simplified credential management and audit trail monitoring. By using EAS platforms to better secure these enclosures, valuable and sensitive equipment can be better protected, and maintaining and servicing the equipment protected by these enclosures can be managed with efficiency, flexibility and maximum security.

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