The transition to 5G, internet of things (IoT), cloud-native infrastructure and virtualised architectures has spurred a transformation in network and device testing. The stakeholders involved in network testing have been working to develop solutions that ensure consistent 5G performance for end-users. The tools, software and protocols integrated into the 5G deployment process are at the core of 5G testing.

However, with the widespread deployment of 5G networks and the anticipation of 6G, it is critical to understand the cy­bersecurity implications of these technologies. As 5G and 6G networks evolve in dynamic and programmable virtualised environments, they will face an increasing number of security threats. Therefore, the need of the hour is a comprehensive, integrated network security platform.

Network testing

Network testing is the process of analy­sing, identifying bugs and assessing network performance. Given the broad range of 5G use cases, testing 5G networks is al­mo­st as complex as designing the network itself. While deploying 5G services, service providers face challenges such as backward compatibility, interoperability and high quality requirements. Therefore, ri­gorous 5G network testing and trouble­sh­ooting are necessary for ensuring smooth operations. However, the complexity of 5G can be seen as an opportunity for communication service providers (CSPs) and vendors to upgrade their traditional testing methodologies and develop new testing techniques.

5G network testing goes beyond the evaluation of parameters such as lightning-fast download speeds, low latency and extensive coverage density. It must also ensure that the network’s functionalities and performance meet the expected standards while maintaining the highest levels of security. 5G testing requires end-to-end solutions that cover development, deployment and operational excellence.

Notably, new radio (NR) is driving a paradigm shift in 5G testing methodology. The NR spectrum includes frequencies ranging from less than 6 GHz to 100 GHz. Another advanced technology cruci­al to the success of 5G testing and dep­loyment is beamforming. This approach strategically directs transmissions directly to end-users, circumventing obstacles that interfere with high frequency transmissions. The combination of millimetre wave (mmWave) utilisation, multiple input, multiple output and beamforming significantly enhances 5G performance.

Virtualisation and automation are essential testing and measurement (T&M) trends emphasised in 5G, as they enable cost-effective testing of networks and services. Moreover, standardisation is key to developing accurate 5G test models, leading to more harmonised testing practices.

The global shift towards 6G is not just an incremental improvement over 5G, but a significant leap forward that could transform network operations. 6G will utilise higher frequency bands like terahertz (THz) and sub-mmWaves to allow greater data transmission. New technologies, such as quantum communications and block­chain, will be incorporated to en­hance net­work security and resilience. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and virtualisation are the key aspects of telecom that are expected to have the most significant impact on 6G testing. Moreover, new testing methodologies are expected to be developed for 6G, which will involve not only upscaling the current testing equipment but also redefining measurement techniques. The over-the-air (OTA) test set-ups introduced in 5G for the frequency range 2 (FR2; 24-52 GHz range) are expected to evolve further for sub-THz (100-300 GHz) frequ­encies. The move to 5G introduced a roughly tenfold increase in frequency from 1-3 GHz to 20-40 GHz, and now, 6G is expected to bring about another tenfold increase (to 100-325 GHz). To acc­o­mmodate these frequencies, the OTA test methods will need to evolve further.

Ensuring network security

As technology advances, innovations in the digital attack surface of networks and devi­ces also progress. Therefore, with the in­t­ro­duction of 5G networks, we must consider the potential challenges that may arise.

A report by Palo Alto Networks reveals that 66 per cent manufacturing companies in India have experienced increased risks due to unsecured IoT devices connected to their networks. Further, 69 per cent of telcos have faced new risks due to their increased reliance on cloud-based services and apps. Moreover, 57 per cent of telcos are concerned about the rise of ransomware. Due to their ability to connect more devices, 5G networks are highly susceptible to cyberattacks. The commercial roll-out of 5G, the emergence of Industry 4.0 and the proliferation of IoT devices underscore the need for robust cybersecurity. Mal­ware, identity thefts, misconfiguration, application layer attacks and phishing are some of the challenges that CSPs need to address.

One of the best approaches to securing 5G networks is end-to-end encryption, which ensures that only the sender and receiver can access the transmitted data, maintaining its confidentiality and protecting it from potential hackers. Another safety measure that 5G networks can utilise is multilayered security policies. These policies should encompass all as­pects of security, including physical, data, network and user security. This ensures that no single control centre holds enough information to compromise the entire system. Apart from this, real-time monitoring and early detection of potential threats are crucial for preventing cyberattacks. Using ML and AI in cybersecurity can further advance this measure as they can rapidly identify network anomalies and provide early alerts regarding potential atta­cks, thereby preventing data breaches. Mo­reover, extending zero-trust security into 5G with ML-powered next-generation physical and virtual firewalls will be critical in securing 5G networks.

In terms of 6G cybersecurity, the long-term objective is to create a self-sustaining network that can detect potential threats and take necessary measures to prevent them without disrupting operations. In this regard, quantum communication has immense potential in 6G networks. It is the need of the hour to support data transfer across sectors such as finance, defence and healthcare, where data privacy and security are paramount. In addition, with 6G technology, the concept of “cybersecurity by design” is gaining traction as a pro­mising solution to securing the expanding attack surface.

The new approaches to cybersecurity solutions will enable the robust zero-trust network architecture required for 6G cybersecurity infrastructure. In zero-trust architecture (ZTA), the network cannot trust anyone without the appropriate credentials. When implemented correctly, ZTA mitigates both the risk of external at­tackers gaining a foothold in the network as well as lateral movement in case of a security breach.

Developments in India

In recent years, India has made significant progress in testing and securing 5G and 6G networks. The development of an in­digenous 5G test bed has led to significant advancements, with testing conducted for various use cases such as rural broadband and smart city applications. Further, in the Union Budget 2023-24, an additional Rs 55.6 million is allocated to build 5G test beds. The Indian T&M industry has also witnessed rapid growth due to technological advancements, and this is expected to continue with the roll-out of 5G, and subsequently, 6G networks.

Moreover, India has launched a 6G test bed in 2023, which will provide academic institutions, start-ups, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), and others with a platform to test and validate the evolving information and communication technology (ICT) solutions.

To support 6G technology, the Indian government has allocated funds through the Telecom Technology Development Fu­nd. This funding will be utilised for two projects: a 6G THz test bed with orbital angular momentum and multiplexing, and an advanced optical communication test bed. It aims to explore the potential of 6G te­chnology using THz frequencies and advanced multiplexing techniques.

Besides this, a report by SonicWall revealed that India saw a 133 per cent in­crease in ransomware attacks and a 37 per cent increase in IoT malware attacks in the first half of 2023, compared to the same period in 2022. Remarkably, the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, along with its incubated start-up, has develop­ed an indigenous software solution to protect 5G telecom networks. This technology solution can automatically detect “zero-day vulnerability” attacks in the network in advance, leveraging techniques such as fuzzing and test oracles.

The bottom line

To keep up with the evolving requirements and expectations, next-generation network testing must operate in real time to deliver new solutions that are more po­werful and flexible, and complement the existing testing methodologies. The convergence of information technology and operational technology has made lateral threat movement easier than ever and defending against it requires robust security automation.

In India, enterprises must invest in security solutions, such as a virtual private network (VPN), end-to-end solutions and multifaceted security policies, to prevent unauthorised access to networks and devi­ces. These solutions must be part of a unified testing and security framework, rather than being treated as separate, isolated tools in order to avoid additional issues.