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Allowing unlicensed bands for critical application may compromise security

Allowing unlicensed frequency bands for deploying a critical application like Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) at a wider scale will seriously compromise the security of the critical infrastructure.

Thus such a critical application/infrastructure should be created only by the telecom companies under their license and over the licensed spectrum, the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI) said in a recent letter to Telecom Secretary K Rajaraman.

The Power Ministry has allowed the use of RF Mesh technologies in both licensed and unlicensed frequency bands for the implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure in India.

The lack of security checks and balances for unlicensed spectrum can make AMI vulnerable, COAI said.

“RF Mesh networks in the unlicensed spectrum have limited security built for data and signalling in contrast with the equipment deployed by licensed TSPs (telecom service providers),” COAI said.

On the contrary, all devices and equipment provided by licensed TSPs have to be approved as part of ‘Trusted Devices’. The gateways and devices used in RF Mesh with unlicensed frequency bands are not being put through these rigorous security checks.

The norms framed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) and the Department of telecommunication (DoT) pertaining to security and quality of service are applicable to the usage of licensed spectrum bands.

In contrast, the traffic generated by devices using the unlicensed spectrum is not going to be put through any of the rigorous testing and monitoring procedure. Also, the RF Mesh Service Providers are not going to be subjected to such compliance mechanisms of Trai/DoT.

“RF Mesh using unlicensed band is already more vulnerable compared to the systems using licensed spectrum, due to lack of proper regulations and appropriate security checks. On top of that, the lack of testing and monitoring will make these systems much more prone to vulnerabilities, threats and cyber-intrusions,” COAI Director General SP Kochhar said in the letter dated March 10.

Deploying large-scale AMI with unlicensed spectrum can disrupt operations of public infrastructure, the industry association added.

“As this infrastructure will rely on unlicensed spectrum and equipment with limited or no security, external persons or agencies may get central access to the control centre as well as databases required for the operation of the smart grid via security infringement,” it said.

Given the mission-critical nature of AMI or Smart Grid at a countrywide large-scale deployment, COAI asserted that it is imperative that communication technologies chosen for these projects should be robust, scalable and secure.

“It also needs to be ensured that standard technology is adopted based on a globally established roadmap and proven support for interoperability. Lastly, there is a need to create a level playing field for all stakeholders while ensuring no revenue loss to the government,” according to COAI.

Using unlicensed spectrum for AMI can create significant market bias against licensees, COAI said and argued that using unlicensed spectrum for AMI can cause interference to licensed operations.

The RF Mesh Service providers, using unlicensed spectrum for service provisioning, will not be subjected to any license fee, Spectrum Usage Charges and other regulatory levies. Beyond only energy metering, this RF Mesh can be deployed for other utility applications, such as in water supply and gas distribution.

“This can lead to a scenario where large-scale AMI, in various sectors, is deployed mostly using this RF Mesh and unlicensed spectrum band (865-868 MHz). This will cause a significant loss to the exchequer in the form of lost levies,” COAI said.

The association urged the Telecom Department to immediately recommend to the Power Ministry to use the licensed spectrum bands and the infrastructure created under the telecom license for the said purpose. PTI

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