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By Godana Galma

INTRODUCTION

At the dawn of the new decade, perhaps the most anticipated technological breakthrough is not the progress of autonomous vehicles or the onset of smart cities but rather the evolutionary technology underpinning them. This is the Fifth Generation Mobile Network Technology commonly known as 5G.

Based on early signs, 5G promises a technological paradigm shift not only in the field of telecommunications but also in the areas of healthcare, manufacturing, transport and commerce.[1] This is because this generation of cellular broadband is designed to increase speed and substantially improve lower latency which can consequently improve the performance of real time applications.[2] The substantial jump in speed will support a number of data intensive tasks such as streaming heavy video content and instantaneous video calls amongst others. A practical example of the significant jump in speed offered by 5G is evident in tests showing that an ordinary 5GB film in High Definition can be downloaded, in ideal conditions, in about 8 seconds.[3]

Further, with improved flexibility of wireless services, 5G is poised to unleash the full potential of the ‘Internet of Things’ i.e. the system by which a variety of everyday machines connected to the web can send and receive data. This presents several benefits including the development of autonomous vehicles, augmented AI and remote medical care. In this way, the network is poised to provide an underlying fabric of unprecedented connectivity to a wide array of industries thereby transforming economic and business policies globally. At the local level, 5G rollout is expected to improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans by enhancing mobile communication facilities and improving digital literacy especially in rural areas which are predominantly under 2/3G coverage.[4]

However, over the past few years, deployment of 5G has been hampered by infrastructural drawbacks.  This technology has only been tested by a handful of large telecoms in certain countries in the developed world. Even in China which significantly expedited 5G rollout, a GSMA report noted that it will take about 5 years for the network to penetrate 36% of all Chinese mobile connections.[5] These challenges arise partly because high-end 5G is only viable over short distances in dense networks. The network therefore requires more base stations to achieve the much- advertised speeds.[6]

For instance, it would be more feasible to rollout 5G in a populated city such as Nairobi due to web traffic conditions in the city.[7] However, in rural areas, a dense network of fixed 5G radios in the form of antennas would be required. The capital cost of installing hundreds of new cell sites and upgrading existing software will significantly dwarf the infrastructural costs of geographically dispersed cell towers underpinning 4G networks.[8] Further, the cost element is not limited to the establishment of necessary infrastructure. In order to harness the potential of this new network, consumers require a 5G compatible handset. These devices are currently relatively few in the local market and are sold at a premium.[9]         

Questions therefore remain as to whether the 5G discussion is one that is practical to 3rd world nations given that infrastructural and spectrum issues are yet to be addressed.[10] To some extent, it may seem oxymoronic to talk about 5G in this part of the globe especially given that 3G recently overtook 2G as the leading mobile technology in the region.[11]

In Kenya, the situation is not any different. One of the main aims of the National Broadband Strategy (2018-2023) is to increase 3G coverage to 94% of the population by 2020.[12] This implicit recognition of the current state of broadband technology in the country casts doubts as to the market readiness of 5G. Additionally, with the rising pattern of cybercrime in recent times, concerns have arisen as to whether the wide berth of services supported by the new technology will conversely allow a backdoor into the perennial threats facing cyberspace.

Nonetheless, the 5G era still promises legitimate benefits to developing nations. Particularly in the key areas of healthcare and agriculture, the network has the potential to significantly accelerate economic and social development in such nations. Thus, it becomes important to understand both the benefits and related risks that arise for developing nations in this new age of opportunity.

INHERENT VULNERABILITIES

The fundamental difference between 5G and prior wireless networks lies in its dependence on software. Much like the regular updates sent to your smartphone, the core functioning of 5G networks will be mostly based on software.

As a predominantly software-dependent network, 5G becomes vulnerable to related risks such as poor software development that can result in security gaps.[13] The departure from previously hardware-dependent functions to software-defined operations carries with it an entirely different type of risk. While the shift to software based functions will minimize reliance on physical infrastructure thereby reducing upgrading costs for service providers, it will consequently magnify the ramifications of a potential compromise.[14] This is because critical network functions that were previously carried out by physical appliances will now become virtualized software functions.  It will therefore be easier for adversaries to compromise these software related functions as they can be controlled remotely as opposed to physical applications.[15] In this way, the dynamic nature of 5G seems to be its ultimate drawback.[16] This raises the need to rethink conventional approaches to Cybersecurity.

However, software proliferation is not the only threat. Since 5G will be utilized to undergird the essential functioning of a host of IoT devices, this will increase the attack vectors of the network. Equipping a number of everyday devices with 5G chips will significantly increase the potential entry points for cybercriminals and the extent of damage of such attacks.  These systems will consequently become more vulnerable to a number of risks namely:

  1. possible theft of sensitive data traversing the network,
  2. disruptions of the functioning of connected devices by other devices, and
  3. attacks that disrupt the integrity and availability of the network itself.[17]

In this regard, software-related vulnerabilities and network based threats stemming from the unique architecture of 5G networks present the biggest challenges. Both these issues were cited by a recent European Commission report. Additionally, there is the danger that insecure network infrastructure provided by certain suppliers will aggravate the potential consequences of weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and of their possible exploitation by threat actors.

Given that developing nations face persistent capacity challenges, they may opt to prioritize low cost options in the deployment of 5G networks. It is against the infrastructural context that Huawei becomes important.

THE HUAWEI CASE

Huawei has in recent years made significant inroads into Africa by presenting solutions for perennial infrastructural challenges. The company is responsible for building about 70% percent of the continent’s 4G networks.[18] Its capacity to offer cost effective end-to-end solutions has made it popular in Africa. The recent cooperation agreement between Huawei and the African Union underscores its position as the continent’s top ICT supplier.

Nationally, the Kenyan government has partnered with the company in a 17.5 billion-shilling deal to build a modern data centre and ‘smart city’ in Konza Technopolis.[19] Additionally, Huawei has a central position in the local market as it provides network equipment to the largest supplier of fixed broadband in the country i.e. Safaricom Home Fibre.[20] Huawei also provides the mobile money platform that powers Safaricom’s M-Pesa service.[21] The fact that a sizeable percentage of individuals, households and businesses use Huawei’s routers and mobile money platforms signifies their dominance in the local market.[22]

However, in recent times the company has come under the spotlight due to indictments relating to the theft of trade secrets and allegations of espionage. Aside from recent rhetoric and politics, the main point of concern with Huawei and any other equipment manufacturer is the capacity of offer secure communications infrastructure. The unique challenges raised by the network’s distinct operation may be exacerbated by the smallest oversight in its security standards. The real issue therefore is not the choice of the particular equipment vendor but rather the security of their underlying structures.   

VULNERABILITIES FOR DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

Aside from technical considerations, there are certain 5G-related issues that are unique to developing nations. Given the dangers of relying on manufacturers with questionable records in cybersecurity, an important issue is the relative incapacity of developing countries to diversify their 5G supply chain.

While developed nations can afford to lock out certain equipment vendors, developing nations, particularly in Africa, may not have similar capacity. Countries such as the US and Australia can afford to adopt such positions since they have managed to establish their previous network infrastructure without dependence on a single supplier.[23] This issue arises from the fact that 5G and 4G generally utilize similar wireless infrastructure in terms of hardware. It then becomes difficult to block a dominant equipment manufacturer from the market.

Apart from infrastructural issues, there are also certain extraneous factors that limit the ability of developing countries in Africa. The prominent one is their relationship with the Chinese state. The Kenyan government as well as other African states have already concluded a host of agreements with the Chinese government regarding the development of infrastructural projects and provision of financial aid. This potentially limits their ability to objectively decide amongst different vendors. Consequently, their capacity to diversify their network infrastructure supply chain may be substantially limited.

In this regard, national governments in developing nations face complicated cost-security tradeoffs. They have to decide whether to exclude or limit certain vendors from their development of the 5G network at the cost of losing critical partnerships and rolling back years of ICT development. The biggest challenge for most of these nations therefore lies in how to promote technological advancement and efficiency vis-à-vis national security interests and sovereignty. This precarious position was succinctly framed by Howard French thus, “…for the time being, Africa doesn’t have any other cost or competency alternatives.”[24]

In addition to this, deployment of 5G in developing countries has the potential to widen the rural-urban divide. As earlier mentioned, 5G is expected to roll out initially in densely populated areas. This is because the high frequency airwaves capable of delivering fast speeds can only travel for short distances. Thus, many more cell antennas will be required. While this is feasible in urban areas, it may not be economically viable for rural areas. This may worsen disparities between rural and urban Kenya.

Thus, having considered these issues, it may seem that the dream of a fast, secure and connected future is still a long way off for developing countries. However, the race to this utopian future should be not be regarded as a sprint but rather as a marathon as it is a race that require a set pace. All the benefits offered by 5G mean very little in the absence of a secure overarching framework. Low cost options must not be afforded priority at the expense of security considerations and developing states must continue to explore multiple options to ensure the security and stability of their 5G future.

In this vein, their main and immediate focus should be the development of a suitable security paradigm containing a raft of measures to ensure in the first instance that the security level of these networks is not compromised. Once this is done, rigorous security standards can be put in place to ensure objectivity in the choice of network equipment supplier.


[1] H.E Hudson, 5G: Challenges for Rural and Developing Regions, at http://themobilecentury.com/?p=690#easy-footnote-1-690

[2] ‘5G speed is data transmission in real time’ Deutsche Telekom at https://www.telekom.com/en/company/details/5g-speed-is-data-transmission-in-real-time-544498

[3] ‘5G Speed: How to understand the numbers’ at https://www.lifewire.com/5g-speed-4180992

[4] 3G, 4G, 5G Coverage Map at https://www.nperf.com/en/map/KE/-/2665.Safaricom/signal/?ll=-0.39550500680014067&lg=38.90991233289243&zoom=7

[5] A. McNeice, China to lead world in 5G Tech by 2025 at https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201911/19/WS5dd344dba310cf3e3557845d.html

[6] D. Jones, High-Band 5G: Let’s Address the Range Question, Shall We? at https://www.lightreading.com/mobile/5g/high-band-5g-lets-address-the-range-question-shall-we/a/d-id/731293

[7] One of the defining features of 5G is its dependence on small cells. Small cells are miniature base stations commonly used in very densely populated urban areas, such as shopping centers, sports venues, train stations and airports  The network will therefore face coverage issues in less populated towns, See https://www.qorvo.com/design-hub/blog/small-cell-networks-and-the-evolution-of-5g  

[8] ‘Key elements for 5G networks’ at https://www.sdxcentral.com/5g/definitions/key-elements-5g-network/

[9]  D. Lumb ‘5G phones are expensive, but MediaTek wants to change that’ at https://www.techradar.com/news/5g-phones-are-expensive-but-mediatek-wants-to-change-that

[10] L. Fourie, ‘The Long Road to 5G in South Africa’ at https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/technology/the-long-road-to-5g-in-south-africa-19896426

[11] ‘The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa (2019)’ at https://www.gsma.com/r/mobileeconomy/sub-saharan-africa/

[12] National Broadband Strategy (2018-2023) at https://ca.go.ke/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Kenya-National-Broadband-Strategy-2018-2023.pdf

[13] T. Seals, ‘Software, Supply-Chain Dangers Top List of 5G Cyber Risks’ at https://threatpost.com/software-supply-chain-5g-cyber-risks/149135/

[14] ‘5G Technology Cybersecurity Risks’ at http://techgenix.com/5g-technology-cybersecurity-risks/

[15] ‘5G Cybersecurity Approaches’ at https://cyberexperts.com/5g-cybersecurity-approaches/

[16] M. Liyanange ‘Software Defined Monitoring Architecture for 5G Networks’ at https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Software-defined-monitoring-architecture-for-5G-Networks_fig1_322466640

[17] ‘Report on EU coordinated risk assessment of 5G networks security’, European Commission at    https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_6049

[18] A. Mackinnon, ‘For Africa, Chinese-built Internet Is Better Than No Internet At All’ at https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/19/for-africa-chinese-built-internet-is-better-than-no-internet-at-all/

[19] ‘Kenya secures 67.5bn project financing from China’ at https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/news/Uhuru-inks-Sh226bn-projects-deal-China/539546-5089434-34uk6dz/index.html

[20] ‘Safaricom is now the largest fiber internet provider in Kenya’ at https://techtrendske.co.ke/safaricom-is-now-the-largest-fiber-internet-provider-in-kenya/

[21] ‘Huawei and Vodafone Achieve a Major M-PESA Milestone in Kenya’ at https://carrier.huawei.com/en/success-stories/carrier-software/solutiontopic01/safaricomkenya

[22] Safaricom Home Fibre has a 34.0% share of the fixed broadband market meaning that it edges ZTE and other equipment manufacturers used by other broadband providers. Additionally, in its Sustainability Report (2018), Huawei Kenya notes that it has invested over USD 3 Million in Kenya.

[23] E.Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Huawei? Understanding the 5G Security Concerns, at https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/who-s-afraid-huawei-understanding-5g-security-concerns

[24] A. Mackinnon, ‘For Africa, Chinese-built Internet Is Better Than No Internet At All’ at https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/19/for-africa-chinese-built-internet-is-better-than-no-internet-at-all/