Quantum technologies present both an opportunity for telcos to solve difficult problems and provide new services, and a security threat that could require extensive IT investment.
Are telcos ready for a quantum leap?
When Andrew Lord, Senior Manager, Optical Networks and Quantum Research at BT, first started presenting quantum technologies at customer events six or seven years ago, his was the graveyard shift, he says, entertaining attendees at the end of the day with talk of “crazy quantum stuff.”
But that is no longer the case. “In the last two years … I’m now speaking before lunch,” says Lord. “And customers come to us.”
Two developments may be causing the shift: Customers’ growing awareness of the threats and opportunities that quantum computing presents, plus a recent spike in investment in quantum technology.
In 2022 investors plowed $2.35 billion into quantum technology startups, which include companies in quantum computing, communications and sensing, according to McKinsey. The public sector has also been digging deep into its pockets. Last year, the United States added $1.8 billion to its previous spend on quantum technology, and the EU committed an extra $1.2 billion, the consultancy noted, while China made total investments of $15.3 billion.
The promise of quantum computing lies in its ability to resolve in just a couple of hours a “probabilistic equation [it] would take a classical computer a million years to solve,” according to Luke Ibbetson, Head of Group R&D at Vodafone. This would allow telcos to address “optimization problems related back to how we plan networks, how we optimize networks, how we place base stations,” he explains.
The flipside is that a powerful quantum computer could also break the public-key cryptography that protects today’s IT systems from hackers. As a spokesperson at Deutsche Telekom remarks: “Telcos will have to react to the threat of quantum computers to communication security, because their core business model is at risk, which is offering secure digital communications.”
The idea of quantum computing posing a security threat is not new. In 1994 Peter Shor, a mathematician working at AT&T Bell Labs, showed how a quantum computer could solve the logarithms used to encrypt data. “His work simultaneously ignited multiple new lines of research in quantum computing, information science, and cryptography,” according to an article by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Shor now works.
Beyond the lab
What has changed nearly thirty years on is that quantum computing is creeping out of the lab. Sizeable obstacles to large-scale quantum computing, however, remain. Quantum computers are highly sensitive to interference from noise, temperature, movement or electromagnetic fields, and therefore very difficult and expensive to build and operate, especially at scale: IBM’s latest quantum processor, for example, operates at the very low temperature of approximately 0.02 degrees Kelvin.
When Deutsche Telekom’s T-Labs tested telco use cases it found quantum computing coped well with small problem statements. “However, when the problem size was scaled to real-world problem sizes, the quality of the QComp solution degraded,” according to the spokesperson. The company is now awaiting the next generation of quantum computing platforms to redo the analyses. All of which means for now quantum computers are not large and powerful enough to crack Shor’s algorithm. The question is, when will someone succeed?
The Global Risk Institute tracks the quantum threat timeline. In its latest annual report, the organization asked 40 quantum experts whether they thought it likely that within the next ten years a quantum computer would break an encryption scheme like RSA-2048 in under 24 hours. Over half the respondents judged the event to be more than 5% likely and almost a quarter considered it to be more than 50% likely. Any breakthrough will come from a relatively small number of actors. Today, governments and academic institutions are home to around half of the 163 projects accounted for worldwide by Global Quantum Intelligence, a research and analysis company, according to its CEO, André M. König, with big technology companies and specialized start ups accounting for the rest.
Nonetheless the impact of quantum computing could be widespread, even if relatively few of them are built. The challenge of preparing for a post-quantum future is often called Q2K in reference to the Y2K bug. In the late 1990s many (but not all) governmental organizations and companies spent millions of dollars on Y2K systems integration to ensure that IT programs written from the 1960s through the 1980s would be able to recognize dates after December 31, 1999, all while being uncertain of the scale or the impact of the risk if they didn’t. ‘Q2K’ differs in that there is no specific deadline, and the dangers of a major security breach are much clearer cut. However, it is similar in demanding a lot of work on aging systems.
“Cryptography is used everywhere,” points out Lory Thorpe, IBM’s Director, Global Solutions and Offerings, Telecommunications. And “because telco systems have been built over periods of decades, people don’t actually know where cryptography is being used,” she says. “So, if you start to look at the impact of public key cryptography and digital signatures being compromised, you start to look at how those two things … impact open source, how that impacts the core network, the radio network, … [and] OSS/BSS, network management, how the network management speaks to the network functions ... and so on.”
This complexity is why some analysts recommend that telcos take action now.
“You’re going to find tens of thousands of vulnerabilities that are critical and vulnerable to a quantum attack. So, do you have to worry about it today? Absolutely - even if it’s in 2035,” says König. “Anyone who has ever done [IT implementation projects], and anyone who’s ever worked in cybersecurity [knows], tens of thousands of vulnerabilities that are critical [requires] years and years and years of just traditional integration work. So, even if you’re skeptical about quantum, if you haven’t started today, it is almost too late already.”
For the past two to three years, Vodafone has been preparing to migrate some of its cryptographic systems to be quantum safe, according to Ibbetson. He believes there is “no kind of panic on this.” If telcos start planning now.
The telecoms industry as a whole, however, is not moving as quickly as some other sectors, according to König, notably the banking, pharmaceutical and automotive industries, for which he says post-quantum security planning “is all very, very strategic – they do this at the CEO level”.
For this reason, Vodafone joined forces with IBM in September 2022 to establish the GSMA Post-Quantum Telco Network Taskforce.
“Even though many industries are preparing to be able to defend against future quantum threats, we didn’t see anything happening particularly in in the telco space, and we wanted to make sure that it was a focus,” says Ibbetson. “Obviously it will turn into an IT-style transformation, but it’s starting now with understanding what it is we need … to mobilize that.”
AT&T has also been working to pinpoint what needs to be addressed. Last year the company said it aims to be quantum ready by 2025, in the sense that it will have done its due diligence and identified a clear path forward.
Minding your PQCs
Companies across multiple sectors are looking to post-quantum cryptography (PQC) to secure their systems, which will use new algorithms that are much harder to crack than RSA.
König contends that PQC needs to become “a standard component of companies’ agile defense posture” and believes the development of PQC systems by software and hardware companies will help keep upgrade costs under control. “From a financial point of view, vendors do a fantastic job bringing this to market and making it very accessible,” says König.
Lord, who has been researching quantum technologies at BT for over a decade, is also confident that there is “going to be much more available technology”. As a result, even smaller telcos will be able to invest in securing their systems. “It doesn't need a big boy with lots of money [for] research … to do something around PQC. There’s a lot of work going on to ratify the best of those solutions,” says Lord.
There are several reasons why eyes are on software based PQC. Firstly, it can be used to secure data that was encrypted in the past and which quantum computing advances will make vulnerable in the future. In addition, the quantum-based alternative to PQC for securing network traffic, called quantum key distribution (QKD), comes with a huge drawback for wireless operators. QKD is hardware-based and uses quantum mechanics to prevent interception across optical fiber and satellite (i.e. free space optical) networks, making it secure, albeit expensive. But for reasons of physics it does not work on mobile networks.
Given the importance of PQC, a lot of effort is going into standardizing robust algorithms. The political weight of the US and the size of its technology industry mean that the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is playing a key role in the technical evaluation of post-quantum standardization algorithms and creating standards. NIST expects to publish the first set of post-quantum cryptography standards in 2024.
In the meantime, Dustin Moody, a NIST mathematician, recommends (in answers emailed to Inform) that companies “become familiar and do some testing with the algorithms being standardized, and how they will fit in your products and applications. Ensure that you are using current best-practice cryptographic algorithms and security strengths in your existing applications. Have somebody designated to be leading the effort to transition.”
There is no absolute guarantee, however, that a quantum computer in the future won’t find a way to crack PQC. Institutions such as government agencies and banks therefore remain interested in using QKD fiber and satellite networks to ensure the highest levels of security for data transmission.
The European Commission, for example, is working with the 27 EU Member States and the European Space Agency (ESA), to design, develop and deploy a QKD-based European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI). It will be made up of fiber networks linking strategic sites at national and cross-border level, and a space segment based on satellites.
EuroQCI “will reinforce the protection of Europe’s governmental institutions, their data centers, hospitals, energy grids, and more,” according to the EU. Telecom operators are involved in some of the national programs, including Orange, which is coordinating France’s part of the program, called FranceQCI (Quantum Communication Infrastructure). Separately, this month Toshiba and Orange announced they had successfully demonstrated the viability of deploying QKD on existing commercial networks.
Outside the EU, BT has already built and is now operating a commercial metro quantum-encryption network in London.
“The London network has three quantum nodes which are the bearers carrying the quantum traffic for all of the access ingress,” explains Lord. A customer in London’s Canary Wharf, for example, could link via the network to the nearest quantum-enabled BT exchange. From there it joins a metro network, which carries the keys from multiple customers “in an aggregated cost-effective way to the egress points,” according to Lord.
“It is not trivial because you can mess things up and [get] the wrong keys,” explains Lord. “You really have to be more careful about authentication … and key management. And then it's all about how you engineer your quantum resources to handle bigger aggregation.” It also gives BT the opportunity to explore how to integrate quantum systems downstream into its whole network.
“What I'm telling the quantum world is that they need to get into the real world because … a system that uses quantum is still going to be 90%, non-quantum and all of the usual networking rules and engineering practices apply. You still need to know how to handle fiber. You still need to know how to provision a piece of equipment and integrate it into a network.”
SK Telecom is also heavily involved in quantum-related research, with developments including QKD systems for the control and interworking of quantum cryptography communication networks. Japan is another important center of QKD research. A QKD network has existed in Tokyo since 2010 and in 2020, financial services company, Nomura Securities Co., Ltd. tested the transmission of data across the Tokyo QKD network.
As the EU’s project makes clear, satellite is an important part of the mix. Lord expects satellite based QKD networks to come on stream as of 2025 and 2026, enabling the purchase of wholesale quantum keys from a dedicated satellite quantum provider. Already back in 2017, China used satellite to make the first very long distance transmission of data secured by QKD, between Beijing and Vienna, a distance of 7,000km.
Securing the edge
There are additional efforts to secure communications with edge devices. BT’s Lord, for example, sees a role for digital fingerprints for IoT devices, phones, cars and smart meters in the form of a PUF [physical unclonable function] silicon chip, which, because of random imperfections in its manufacture, cannot be copied.
In the UK, BT is trialing a combination of QKD and PUF to secure the end-to-end journey of a driverless car. The connection to the roadside depends on standard radio with PUF authentication, while transmission from roadside unit onward, as well as the overall control of autonomous vehicle network, incorporate QKD, explains Lord.
And SK Telecom has developed what it describes as a quantum enhanced cryptographic chip with Korea Computer & Systems (KCS) and ID Quantique. Telefónica Spain meanwhile has partnered on the development of a quantum-safe 5G SIM card and has integrated quantum technology into its cloud service hosted in its virtual data centers.
Given China’s heavy investment in quantum technologies, it is no surprise to see its telecoms operators involved in the field. China Telecom, for example, recently investing 3bn yuan ($434m) investment in quantum technology deployment, according to Reuters.
Quantum in the cloud
Some of America's biggest technology companies are investing in quantum computing. These days it is even possible to access quantum computing facilities via the cloud, albeit at a small scale: IBM's cloud access to quantum computers is free for the most basic level, rising to $1.60 per second for the next level. And it is just the beginning. America's big tech companies are racing to build quantum computers at scale. One measure of scale is the size of a quantum processor, which is measured in qubits. Whereas a bit in a traditional computer stores information as a 0 or 1, a qubit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time, which is why a quantum computer is able to simultaneously investigate multiple possible solutions to a problem, and the more stable qubits there are the better.
IBM has a long history in quantum research and development. In 1998 it unveiled what was then a ground-breaking 2-qubit computer. By 2022 it had produced a 433-qubit processor and in 2023 it aims to produce a 1,121-qubit processor. Separately, this month it announced the construction of its first quantum datacenter in Europe, which it expects to begin offering commercial services as of next year.
Google is also firmly in the race to build a large-scale quantum computer. In 2019 a paper in Nature featured Google’s Sycamore processor and the speed with which it undertakes computational tasks. More recent work includes an experimental demonstration that it’s possible to reduce errors by increasing the number of qubits.
Microsoft reckons that "a quantum machine capable of solving many of the hardest problems facing humanity will ultimately require at least 1 million stable qubits that can perform 1 quintillion operations while making at most a single error." To this end, it is working on what it calls a new type of qubit, called a topological qubit.
Amazon announced in 2021 an AWS Center for Quantum Computing on the Caltech campus to build a fault-tolerant quantum computer.