Article | 27 February 2024

How secure is Fixed Wireless Access?

Setting up CP router
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Written by
Fredericus Arthur, Senior Solution Engineer Singapore

Energy farms in the high desert. Remote agricultural sites aggregating data via the Internet of Things (IoT). Retailers putting on a show with pop-up events. All of them needing business-grade internet access … and many of them taking advantage of modern wireless connectivity to provide it.

Yes, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is here to stay.

But when critical business data is involved, what’s uppermost in the minds of IT managers is security. Even among nontechnical types, sending private information over the air seems somehow riskier than sending it down a wire, doesn’t it?

The good news: when correctly implemented, FWA doesn’t give anything away to wired networks on the security front. In fact, there are use cases where your data’s wrapped up tighter than in a wired world. But as with all technology, there are nuances. In this article, we’ll go through the worries – and show how FWA answers each one.

1. Maintain best data practice on FWA

At heart, an FWA network is no different in purpose to a wired one – it’s there to help your people connect and work together. Most of the time, using it feels just like any other connection method. And that’s the first vulnerability to solve.

Sadly, a huge percentage of cyberattacks start not by compromising the network, but by compromising the people using it. (Hackers don’t care whether you’re wired or wireless.) The easiest way in for bad actors is often a phishing attack that invites people to click a malware link ... or the spear-phishing variant that targets specific individuals with knowledge about them … and automated attacks seeking weak passwords or open ports in your infrastructure.

It’s a jungle out there. And the wildlife is ferocious.

So the first rule of fixed wireless security is that any FWA installation needs good data practice from your people, the same as any other network. Train them in strong password choice, suspicious activity awareness, and basic privacy procedures that reduce the chance of human error. It’s the first line of defence – and often legally required, too.

2. Use multi-factor authentication

Beyond basic data best practice comes authentication: making sure people are who they say they are. And that means more than a typed password. So, confirming people’s identity with more than one factor – such as an OTP (One Time Password) to their phone – is always a good idea.

But if your site is far from normal mobile coverage, this makes some methods of MFA impossible. An FWA router brings in the data service offered by a specific network provider; it doesn’t extend general mobile phone coverage to your remote farm or factory .

Fortunately, today’s technology offers more choices than OTP. Facial recognition, authenticator apps, tokens exchanged by software: there are many choices. And they’re just as easy to use with fixed wireless access as with a “normal” connection. So, make sure your network is using them.

3. Cellular networks aren’t like broadcast radio

Another worry of wireless is that people think it’s like radio – with data being “broadcast” the same way your favourite DJ spins his playlist, with a risk bad actors will “tune in”.

If you’re concerned about this, relax. It’s not how FWA works.

While the cellular networks much FWA relies on do use radio waves (like all wireless communications, including your WiFi) it’s not a broadcast channel. Data across the network is encrypted by design. The packets of data that go between the SIM in your FWA router and the mobile network are secured by high-grade hashing algorithms developed and proven over many years, as a basic feature of digital telephony.

Security isn’t a software add-on: it’s a fundamental part of cellular communications.

Even without extra layers of security, your FWA connection is inherently secure. It’s incredibly hard to “listen in” to a cellular connection – and even if you could, it’d sound unintelligible. But of course, this security was originally designed for voice calls … so a good FWA adds additional expertise to an already solid foundation.

4. Public key methods encrypt data end-to-end

All modern enterprise applications in the cloud add another layer of encryption as standard, from e-commerce shopping software to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that run your office network over public infrastructure. Think of your data as travelling within hidden tunnels that run alongside normal public roads.

If this sounds unfamiliar, it may surprise you to learn you probably use it every day, with applications like WhatsApp.

When you use WhatsApp, each comment in your conversation is scrambled on your phone by the app before you hit Send using two “keys” – one private to you, one shared with whoever you’re talking to. The comment is then decrypted into readable form on your friend’s phone using their private key and your public one. All automatically, without needing you to juggle keys yourself.

What’s important to note: at no point in the data’s journey across the network is it vulnerable. It’s only decrypted when it reaches the phone (even WhatsApp can’t listen in). And the enterprise applications you use over your FWA connection use the same principle. So, your cloud applications are secure on FWA, too.

5. Use access control for the strongest security stance

There is one difference between a wired office network and an FWA one: FWAs tend to have a greater diversity of connected devices, used for a greater variety of purposes. Because at a remote site, the wireless link has to cover all connectivity at the site, usually via WiFi. That means people’s phones, tablets, laptops, IoT sensors, and every app both professional and personal.

That’s why the next part of the security puzzle is access control. Modern policies don’t just allow access to anything that logs in; permissions tables govern which device, which user, and even which application has access to different data sources. Meaning you can control access to sensitive resources in great detail, with profiles for different job titles and seniority. All of which makes sense in today’s complex workplace.

6. Make sure your Wifi isn’t a weak link

While your FWA setup probably uses the mobile telephony spectrum to connect to the outside world, your people and devices at the site will mostly use WiFi to connect to that link. So, make sure your WiFi doesn’t let you down.

All WiFi connections are password accessed, which provides some security – and most are encrypted between device and router, providing more. But older routers may not be using the strongest encryption model, measured in “key strength” (simply put, the length of the encryption key.) Older WEP encryption is as low as 64 bits; many routers today only use 128-bit, when best practice today means 256-bit or above.

Fortunately, this is an area where FWA wins over many wired networks. SIM-based routers are newer hardware; 256-bit key lengths are standard. Of course, make sure you check with your provider – but it’s highly likely your SIM router offers strong WiFi encryption as standard.

Security isn’t about wires – it’s all about good decisions

So there’s the story: security on FWA installations isn’t weaker than on wired networks – in fact it’s frequently stronger, often due to fundamental design features. Obviously, this doesn’t mean your IT manager can relax – security is an ongoing process that never ends – but the strength and layered approach available with FWA security should address any worries you may have for your enterprise network.

We’d be happy to talk further about wireless security and show you how your FWA setup can be just as safe as any wired one. Get in touch with our Wireless experts today to find out more!

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