Today, private 5G networks are being considered as one of the most critical use cases of 5G technology as they promise the next level of digital innovation for enterprises along with upholding the promise of Industry 4.0. Globally, as well as in India, use cases for building private 5G networks are being actively ex­plored to fuel new use cases, drive innovation and efficiency, and make this one of the major connectivity technologies for Industry 4.0.

However, when deploying private 5G networks, two key aspects need to be kept in mind – adequate testing practices and se­curity – in order to ensure network avai­lability, continuity, privacy and integrity. To capture market share and generate revenue, the entity deploying a private 5G network – either the mobile network operator or the enterprise itself – must aim to build flexible and secure architectures to meet the demand for next-gen use cases.

Network testing practices

While 5G drives new capabilities and efficiencies in industrial processes, it also entails increased complexities and performance demands for the network. As such, ac­c­urate and insightful testing me­tho­dologies are crucial and need to be undertaken in every phase of the mobile network roll-out. This helps accelerate the preparation, deployment and operation of the network while utilising resources more efficiently.

Private 5G networks have unique and specific requirements that differ from those of open public networks. Therefore, a tremendous amount of frequency/band combinations must be considered for testing them. Further, it is essential to ensure that devices such as  internet of things (IoT) devices, which are intended to operate exclusively in a non-public network (NPN) environment, do not connect to macro networks.

Some key practices that should be follo­w­ed while testing private 5G networks are:

  • Compatibility: Many devices used in a private network support cellular, Wi-Fi and short-range wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and Zigbee. Ensuring that the user equipment (UE) can seamlessly transfer from one technology to another is essential for optimal private 5G network performance.
  • Connectivity: 5G IoT devices require proper testing to verify call connection, cell selection/reselection, access control and any potential mobility impacts in NPN environments. Further, certain features of 5G NPN allow devices to se­lectively connect to the correct network. It is crucial to verify that a private 5G network is truly only catering to private 5G devices.
  • Interference: Considering most use cases of private 5G networks, interference testing is critical. This requires testing to determine whether the devices can support multiple technologies and operate in less-than-ideal real-world environments.
  • Simulating real-world scenarios: Ap­art from these, it is important to simulate real-world scenarios to efficiently verify that the UE will perform when deployed in a private 5G network.

Additionally, the testing of private 5G networks should adhere to test processes that align with 3GPP standards and mimic real-world scenarios that mirror the specific environment of the private 5G network in terms of connectivity, compatibility, and interference. This approach will provide greater confidence that the networks will meet the desired key performance indicators.

Ensuring network security

The deployment of private 5G networks also brings with it several cyber-risks ow­ing to the increased exposure to industrial IoT applications and the physical mobility of people and devices on the network. In fact, the interplay between enterprises, mobile network operators, IoT manufacturers and operational technology vendors and suppliers, all contribute to the security challenges associated with a private 5G netwo­rk. Se­curity threats typically include internally generated threats (for example, malware infection from laptops brought into a factory) and external threats (for example, lateral movement from the information technology network, illegal access, and vulnerability attacks from the internet).

In the 5G era, security risks have escalated due to the convergence of cloud, data and IoT security threats. Moreover, the 5G network core is built upon software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV). Both SDN and NFV rely heavily on the hypertext tra­nsfer protocol and representational state transfer  application programming interface protocols. These protocols are well known and widely used on the internet, and are, therefore, vulnerable to hacking. Additionally, as a minority of private 5G networks will be greenfield de­ployments, the majority of networks will have to integrate and interoperate with legacy technologies, thereby exposing the network to the security threats associated with them.

While 5G networks are designed to be more secure than previous technology ge­ne­rations, it is important to note that no network technology can provide end-to-end security. 5G technology provides phy­sical and link layer protection to safeguard against eavesdropping and data tampering during transit. However, enterprises opting to deploy private 5G networks will be transitioning away from an operational technology-based network that relies on physical isolation. This would require operators deploying private 5G to provide logical isolation mechanisms and physical radio layer protections (jamming protection). Moreover, to fulfil the requirements for a single trust domain, additional end-to-end encryption and integrity protection mechanisms need to be in place.

Another key aspect to be kept in mind is that with private 5G networks, enterprises and network service providers can be jointly responsible for security. While en­suring end-to-end security would requi­re vendor collaboration, enterprise custo­me­rs also have a crucial role to play. They would have to ensure that their data is protected by overseeing their devices and the data generated by them, regardless of their storage location.

Enterprises can take specific measures independently to secure private 5G networks. These include adopting a comprehensive security orchestration and end-to-end approach with a higher degree of se­cu­rity automation. Furthermore, they can adopt a continuous and adaptive approach that involves adaptive risk-based decision-making and continuous visibility and assessment to enhance the security of private 5G networks.

Moreover, integrating a “zero trust” framework into the strategy can be beneficial. This involves implementing real-time device health attestation, user authentication and micro-segmentation, and a software-defined perimeter. However, the range of options and approaches can beco­me complex and, even with carrier-based solutions, assessing the suitability of an enterprise in terms of which features contribute to a strong business case can be ch­a­ll­enging. In this regard, partnering with a managed services provider (MSP) can help shield enterprises from dealing with the complexity of the network security infrastructure. Ideally, enterprises can consider MSPs whose end-to-end security infrastructure and operations management are purpose designed to keep enterprises’ bu­si­ness safe and compliant. Additionally, it is crucial for the partner to understand that while 5G as a technology introduces nu­merous security enhancements compar­ed to existing enterprise wireless technologies, these new features still need to be integrated with the enterprise’s existing security strategy.

Devising testing and security strategies for future deployments

Private 5G networks, being dedicated networks, provide superior control and security compared to public networks. How­ever, it is crucial that these networks are tried and tested across various parameters to ensure that they meet the desired quality of service requirements. Further­more, scaling up private 5G networks in terms of capacity and distribution can pose challenges depending on the enterprise’s obje­ctives. As these networks often support mission-critical use cases, they necessitate telco-grade equipment and services, whi­ch, in turn, require significant investments.

All these aspects concerning private 5G networks should be taken into consideration when devising a suitable strategy for net­work testing, security and deployment. Net, net, establishing conducive network te­sting and security mechanisms for private 5G networks, which enable smooth dep­loyment, will be key to leveraging the benefits of their various use cases.