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Optus and the question of data retention

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(Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com / Flickr)

Will the data retention scheme result in a cost blow out for the roll-out of 5G?

Optus recently requested a proper investigation by the Government in relation to a potential data storage cost blowout to retain 5G metadata.

This is data that labels information about other data such as files, videos, instructions, images and so on. The telcos are now required by law to collect and store metadata and to make that available to various government agencies.

Optus' message on this issue was a bit cryptic. So I decided to turn to my international network of experts to get their opinion on the question and if there are, indeed, potential technical problems and cost blow-outs with a data retention scheme that requires the storage of 5G metadata. 

As it turned out, the answer to this depends on a range of underlying issues. To illustrate the difficulty of unravelling those issues, I quote one of my colleagues whose answer was: "Yes, no, maybe".

Let’s go a bit deeper by first looking at the technologies involved.

5G is not just one technology but a set of networking technologies that also includes, among others, 4G, WiFi and technologies such as massive MIMO (for the parallel uses of the mobile antennas), the use millimetre-wave technologies and private wireless (IoT) networks. The rollout and the delivery of such complex "5G" scenarios will heavily rely on a concerted connection to those sister infrastructures, as well as a range of other software and hardware technologies.

Furthermore, there is still a question regarding the commercial viability of 5G, especially in the short and medium-term. Currently, there is little demand for it and a full roll-out of 5G will take five to ten years. Who knows what will happen in those years?

Whatever issues arise and need to be resolved will depend on how successful the telcos will be in attracting new 5G services for which customers are prepared to pay. The internet of things (IoT) is one of the areas that receives a lot of attention. Here we are talking about billions of devices and sensors which potentially could be connected to the network. These include electricity and household sensors, self-driving cars, industrial robots and medical equipment, just to name a few.

Then there are the hotly debated reliability issues. Complex applications relying on 5G require very high levels of reliability. Adding billions of devices doesn’t leave a lot of room for the imagination of what the risks are. Australia recently had a major Telstra outage — imagine what would happen with driverless cars, medical implants, drones and robots if they were affected by such an outage. So, yes, if 5G is becoming as popular as the vendors and the telcos want us to believe, they will face challenges never seen before.

However, it doesn’t look to me that Optus is referring to these issues. Add to the above-mentioned complexity that overzealous Australian politicians want every single device monitored. On top of that, they want all that information stored perhaps for up to two years and it now becomes clear what sort of problem Optus is referring to.

While many of the IoT devices are rather static and will not have a lot of data that needs to be stored if you talk of billions of them and the security agencies want all of the metadata collected and stored, you indeed will have a problem. This, of course, is on top of the other metadata that needs to be collected from services such as Facebook, emails, YouTube, Google searches, advertising, internet traffic and so on.

So, the answer to the blow-out question is indeed a valid one but the answer depends on how successful 5G will be and how widespread its infiltration will be in our society and economy.

As many industry and security experts, as well as national and international business leaders, have indicated, the data retention regime could do Australia more harm than good. The question is how politically powerful the security agencies are in their overzealous demands. Their demands could undermine the whole reliability of the telecoms' infrastructure unless they are prepared to spend billions of dollars to see all of their requirements fulfilled. If they don't come up with the money to pay for their demands, 5G might simply become a commercially unviable technology.

Looking at just the technical issues – if we don’t take the requirements from the security agencies into account – the answer to the blow out question could be that it would not happen. The infrastructure can be configured with 4G and WiFi and the backhaul will have to be fibre, in any case, and the technical capacity could well be organised in an effective and efficient way. Cryptography could be applied to secure the flow of communication, protecting it from snooping, hacking and jamming.

However, adding the requirements from the security agencies makes it a totally different proposition. How much power is the Government prepared to secede to the security agencies to get what they want and who is going to pay for the extra billions of dollars that this will cost?

This, of course, is totally separate from the national issues on how much of a “Big Brother is watching you” society Australia wants to become. Perhaps after China and a few rouge countries, Australia is set to become the Western example of a surveillance state. The country is already becoming a global test case in many areas, including the technical one addressed by Optus.

The other issue that is receiving international attention is what these laws mean for press freedom as well as for personal freedoms and privacy. If these issues are not well thought through and properly addressed, the answer to the blow-out question will be that it would blow out.

So far, the Government has boycotted a proper and broad debate and rushed through the surveillance legislation without any proper discussion and without thinking through the technical, financial and social consequences of their decisions.

Paul Budde is managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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