5G is the fifth generation of cellular technology for network communications. Mobile phone operators started to deploy it in late 2019 in select cities, and more are being added in 2020. Compared to 4G LTE, 5G will have up to 100 times the speed and 10 times less latency. Theoretical speeds for 5G downlinks can go up to 20 Gbps, and 10 Gbps for uplinks. However, real-world speeds will be up to 100 Mbps to download and 50 Mbps to upload. Latency in connecting to the network from a device will typically be 4 milliseconds under ideal conditions, but critical applications such as remote surgery will enjoy latency as low as 1 millisecond.
In addition, 5G will enable many more simultaneous connections to devices in the Internet of Things (IoT), such as sensors in manufacturing plants, industrial control systems in power plants, in-car Wi-Fi, video doorbells, and smart thermostats. But with all these additional connections to IoT devices, the attack surface will increase by an order of magnitude. So we’ll need to increase security with 5G, and we’ll need to build security in by design for these 5G-enabled IoT devices.
The initial rollout of 5G will create security challenges, some that come from 5G itself and others inherited from existing technology. As an example, for the time being, 5G networks will leverage the infrastructure of the 4G LTE network. Consequently, current 5G is a non-stand-alone radio access network (RAN) deployment that requires a unique security mechanism. Let’s explain: A master eNodeB LTE radio determines if a device, such as an IoT device or smartphone, is 5G compatible. If the device is compatible, the eNodeB creates a key for the device to pass to the gNodeB 5G base station. The device can then access the 5G signal. The issue is that these transmissions between the device and nodes are sent in vulnerable plaintext, which creates an opportunity for further security exploits by hackers. Eventually, a 5G stand-alone RAN deployment will help solve the 5G security threat with security protocols protecting transmissions between core components at the IP, transport, and application layers.
5G will also present challenges based on its underpinnings, which are different from 4G LTE. While older 4G LTE networks have been built mostly on hardware, 5G wireless is based largely on software-defined network (SDN) functions replacing that hardware. At the same time, whereas 4G LTE hardware networks were based on a hub-and-spoke design, which had chokepoints where architects could implement security, SDN-based 5G networks live on a distributed web of digital router connections, whose design intentionally does away with bottlenecks. Consequently, in a 5G network with IoT devices, security will have to be end to end. Additional 5G security challenges also exist: