LTE radio access security

Securing LTE radio access networks effectively

LTE networks require a dedicated security solution

As an all-IP technology, LTE brings new capabilities to improve the customer experience, but also demands new security measures to protect those same customers, as well as the operator.

A vital part of moving LTE networks from pilot deployments to full commercial roll outs is the implementation of solid security measures to protect the network and its users from hacking and other
cyber-attacks. It’s an increasingly important issue because the effects of a security breach could be financially devastating for an operator. In one instance, a European operator suffered losses of around €25 million due to increased churn following an attack on a gateway that led to poor browsing service for several days.

LTE is fully IP, creating vulnerabilities not seen in 2G and 3G networks. In GSM and WCDMA networks, traffic is protected by encrypting it between the user equipment and the radio network controller, typically installed in a building and trusted environment. LTE architecture is different because it is all-IP within the
core and all the way to the base station. Encryption is typically applied only between the LTE base station and the end-user device, leaving traffic on the transport network unencrypted.

The business impact of any disruptive event can be dramatic. As an example, any attempt to illegally track voice and data can damage the sensitive relationship between operator and customer, which could ultimately lead to subscriber churn. Unauthorized access to the core network can also cause denial of service or even corrupt the operator’s management systems, for example, operations support system (OSS).

Small cells set further demands for protection

The use of IP/Ethernet connectivity for the backhaul, which by nature is more open than traditional circuitbased networks, means that customer data needs to be protected against eavesdropping. Furthermore, operator systems must be secured against misuse and other threats between the base station and packet core.

The risks are increased by the deployment of small cells, an important aspect of LTE networks that are designed to provide virtually unlimited capacity and coverage. Increasingly, LTE base stations will be installed in areas more easily accessible to the public - in shopping malls, airports and on the street. The potential for people to physically access a base station, or even steal it and try to use it on another network, is very real.

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