Cell-Site Physical Security Should Not Be a Black Box

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By Jake Saunders | 2Q 2019 | IN-5461

Mobile telcos have several financial, operational, and logistical challenges managing the various operational components of their networks. One of the most operational challenging areas of the network are the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of cell sites that maintain the last mile connections to end users. As of the end of 2018, there are approximately 7.2 million installed macro cell sites worldwide, spread across approximately 700 mobile operators. By the end of 2023, that number is expected to grow to 9 million.

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Cell-Site Security: Often Poorly Coordinated with No Accountability

NEWS


Mobile telcos have several financial, operational, and logistical challenges managing the various operational components of their networks. One of the most operational challenging areas of the network are the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of cell sites that maintain the last mile connections to end users. As of the end of 2018, there are approximately 7.2 million installed macro cell sites worldwide, spread across approximately 700 mobile operators. By the end of 2023, that number is expected to grow to 9 million.

A typical cell-site has a variety of valuable and complex hardware and software elements:

  • Baseband Unit: Processes the baseband signal channels
  • Transceiver: The unit which incorporates the Radio Frequency (RF) transmitter and receiver
  • Power Amplifier: Amplifies the transceiver signal for transmission through the antenna
  • Combiner: Combines multiple RF signals from multiple transceivers
  • Duplexer: Isolates “transmit” and “receive” paths so that they can share one antenna
  • Antenna: Transmits and receives the radio signals
  • Antenna Mast: Supports the elevation of antennas
  • Backup Batteries/Generator: Backup batteries, or a diesel generator, cuts over and maintain communications
  • Monitoring System: Monitors the status of various parts of the base station
  • Control Function: Software based; controls and manages the functioning of the base station
  • Cabinet: Provides a secure, weatherproof shelter for base-station electronics
  • Base-station Foundations: May include installing a concrete base for the cabinet

From ABI Research’s ongoing cell-site research, the capital expenditure for macro cell site can cost between US$50,000 and US$120,000. In reality, however, capital expenditure is only 33% of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO); operating expenses represent 67% of TCO over a five-year period. Given the value and complex array of equipment on a cell site, it is essential that mobile operators maximize the uptime of their mobile cell sites—macro and micro.

While mobile operators have invested substantial sums of money in managed service contracts and operations support systems, the “last mile of maintenance support” by field engineers and other support personnel is often poorly coordinated and unaccountable.

Physical Security as a Service

IMPACT


In many countries, mobile operators typically store the physical keys for cell sites and cabinets at a central location. This can lead to additional downtime as cell-site support personnel can potentially spend hours in traffic to pick up and return these physical keys. Further, cell-site physical keys can be illegally duplicated, stolen, or lost. The mobile operator has no confirmation that the intended support personnel were the individuals that completed the task, how long the support personnel were on site, or what components were accessed. In developed markets, the high costs of manpower provide an imperative to improve the reliability and turnaround time of cell-site maintenance and inspection visits. While labor costs in emerging markets may be lower, road traffic congestion and long distances between headquarters and remote cell sites can have a material impact on uptime.

Companies are starting to address these operational blind spots. In Asia, Willowmore, a Singapore-based company, is seeking to transform the way businesses monitor and manage site access with Internet of things solutions.

The essential feature of Willowmore’s solution is its keyless approach.The smart padlock (see Figure 1) is managed by Willowmore’s enterprise-grade access control management system and is operational in iOS and Android as well as via a desktop back-end platform. Willowmore’s solution allows two-way communications; managers can assign or revoke access to cell-site support personnel in real time. The virtual keys are granted via the desktop web app. Once the virtual keys are issued to the authorized user, the Willowmore’s smartphone app WMSecure locks or unlocks the padlock via Bluetooth. This means that, even if the phone does not have cellular coverage, the app still works within a designated offline time frame. When the cell-site support personnel then locks the site, the app enforces picture verification, thereby informing the Network Operations Center (NOC) that the cell-site is verified as secure. For a mobile operator with 15,000 cell sites, the company estimates that 840,000 hours of traveling time can be saved, resulting in at least US$5 million savings in workforce costs and eliminating US$245,000 in fuel expenses. Across the board, companies could potentially save up to US$9.7 million per year.

  Figure 1. Willowmore’s Smart Padlock Control Process  
  1. Mobile operator’s NOC grants access to a designated support staff
  2. Permission is sent to the support staff’s smartphone via the cellular or WiFi connection
  3. The support staff can use the virtual key to unlock the cell-site via Bluetooth
  4. Once the cell-site has been re-secured, picture verification is sent to the NOC and
    additional data analytics regarding the cell site can be performed

 

Here's What We Think

RECOMMENDATIONS


Given the number of cell sites a mobile operator has to maintain, ensuring effective and reliable telco security on premises as well as achieving network expense savings will become increasingly important. The smart padlock sector has a growing number of players, such as August, ASSA ABLOY, Unikey, MulTLock, and Latch, but many of these are more focused on the smart home and smart business premises. Acsys does provide smart-lock solutions to telcos and tower management companies, but their solution still requires a smart key. Telcos and businesses will need to store the smart keys in a central location and manage keys on a per head count or per group basis.

ABI Research believes there is merit to Physical Security as a Service (SECaaS)—a keyless smart padlock solution that allows remote authentication and premise security monitoring. It is not just reduced downtime per cell site. Using data analytics, operators can gain insight into the mean time to complete a cell-site support task, not only identifying which personnel are efficient but also those workflow processes that are inferior. Greater accountability should also reduce opportunistic theft of equipment.

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