How hard is your network really, comms watchdog asks telcos

Ofcom opens consultation on resilience requirements... power backup for mobile networks, anyone?

Britain's comms regulator is asking telecoms providers for updated guidance on how resilient their networks are, given modern society’s increasing reliance on digital services.

Watchdog Ofcom, aka the Office of Communications, wants to ensure telecoms networks are sufficiently resilient to cope with increasing demand, and said it is going to give operators "greater clarity" on how they're expected to comply with an updated framework for security and resilience that came into force in October 2022.

As part of the consultation, Ofcom is also seeking feedback on beefing up power backup for mobile networks, as more subscribers ditch the landline and rely increasingly on mobile networks to contact emergency services.

The regulator notes that being online is now a part of daily life, and claims that 93 percent of adults have internet access at home. Many people access the internet largely via a smartphone connected to a mobile wireless network.

There is now more dependence on access to digital services to carry out essential day to day tasks such as banking, and more than one in five employees work at least one day from home a week, and about one in eight people work from home exclusively, according to a UK Parliament report.

The current move to migrate landline customers from the old analog PSTN service to digital (VoIP) technology means that consumers will become more reliant on mobile networks in the event of a power outage that affects fixed-line networks, Ofcom says.

Telcos were already subject to rules around resilience, but these were revised in 2021 as part of updates to the Communications Act 2003. The updates require them to take “appropriate and proportionate measures” to identify, prepare for and reduce the risk of any “security compromise,” which includes anything that may compromise the availability, performance or functionality of the network.

Biggest issue? Not malware-flingers. Single points of hardware failure

Security compromises therefore now cover not only service interruptions such as those caused by online attackers or malware, but also outages caused by external factors.

According to Ofcom, hardware failures were the most common cause of outages over recent years, and external events such as winter storms are having a greater impact. It highlighted the number of incidents reported to it between December 2021 and March 2022, when Storm Arwen caused complete power outages for almost a million homes and Storm Eunice also caused a record power outage over a 24-hour period, with over 1.4 million homes affected.

Ofcom said its guidance not only includes information gathering powers, but powers to direct communications providers to explain any failure to act, and enforcement powers under sections 105S to 105V of the 2003 Act.

The guidance notes that the access part of a telecoms network, to which subscribers connect, tends to be much more extensive and geographically dispersed, and therefore subject to more single points of failure.

As such, it sets out measures that Ofcom expects communications providers to take to mitigate against these risks. These are largely concerned with providers ensuring that access networks are designed to avoid or limit single points of failure. As an example, Ofcom claims cell base stations and street cabinets are often connected to a single "parent" site without resilient connectivity.

Recommendations also include ensuring that key infrastructure points have automatic failover capability, so that network traffic is immediately diverted to another site that can maintain connectivity in the event of failure. Telcos must set out the processes, tools, and training to support the resilience requirements.

On the resilience of mobile networks, Ofcom said it has not so far included in its guidance any measures covering additional power backup at cell towers and the like. It is therefore issuing a separate call for input on this.

Currently, battery backup across the mobile access sites varies by network operator, in both the proportion of cell sites that are backed up and the backup capacity. The regulator said it is exploring what additional measures operators might take regarding the extent of any power backup provision.

Ofcom is inviting responses to this consultation, with a deadline of 1700 UK time on Friday 1 March 2024. A statement on the resilience guidance will then be published in the summer, along with any changes for mobile network power resilience. A response form is available on Ofcom's website. ®

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