The Upcoming UK Telecoms (Security) Act Part One: What, Why, Who, When and How

In November 2020, the Telecommunications (Security) Bill was formally introduced to the UK’s House of Commons by the department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Now, after several readings, debates, committee hearings, and periods of consultation, the Telecommunications (Security) Act is quickly becoming reality for providers of public telecoms networks and services in the UK, going live on 1 October 2022. Here, we outline what exactly the requirements mean for these firms, and what they can do to prepare. 

What is the Telecommunications (Security) Act?

The Act outlines new legal duties on telecoms firms to increase the security of the entire UK network and introduces new regulatory powers to the UK Telecoms regulator OFCOM to regulate Public Telecommunications Providers in the area of cyber security. It place obligations on operators to put in place more measures around the security of their supply chains, which includes the security of the products they procure. The Act grants powers to the Secretary of State to introduce a so-called Code of Practice. It is this Code of Practice which contains the bulk of the technical requirements that operators must comply with. Those not in compliance face large fines (up to 10% of company turnover for one year).

Why has the Telecommunications (Security) Act been introduced?

Following the UK Telecoms Supply Chain review in 2018, the government identified three areas of concern that needed addressing:

  1. Existing industry practices may have achieved good commercial outcomes but did not incentivise effective cyber security risk management.
  2. Policy and regulation in enforcing telecoms cyber security needed to be significantly strengthened to address these concerns. 
  3. The lack of diversity across the telecoms supply chain creates the possibility of national dependence on single suppliers, which poses a range of risks to the security and resilience of UK telecoms networks.

Following the review, little did we know a major resilience test for the telecoms industry was about to face significant challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Data released by Openreach – the UK’s largest broadband network, used by customers of BT, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone and Zen – showed that broadband usage more than doubled in 2020 with 50,000 Petabytes (PB) of data being consumed across the country, compared to around 22,000 in 2019. 

There is no question the security resilience of the UK telecoms sector is becoming ever more crucial — especially as the government intends to bring gigabit capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025. As outlined in the National Cyber Security Centre’s Security analysis for the UK telecoms sector, ‘As technologies grow and evolve, we must have a security framework that is fit for purpose and ensures the UK’s Critical National Telecoms Infrastructure remains online and secure both now and in the future’.

Who does the Telecommunications (Security) Act affect?

The legislation will apply to public telecoms providers (including large companies such as BT and Vodafone and smaller companies that offer telecoms networks or services to the public). More specifically to quote the Act itself:

  • Tier 1: This applies to the largest organisations with an annual turnover of over £1bn providing public networks and services for which a security compromise would have the most widespread impact on network and service availability, and the most damaging economic or social effects. 
  • Tier 2 providers would be those medium-sized companies with an annual turnover of more than £50m, providing networks and services for which security compromises would have an impact on critical national infrastructure (CNI) or regional availability with potentially significant security, economic or social effects.
  • Tier 3 providers would be the smallest companies with an annual turnover of less than £50m in the market that are not micro-entities. While security compromises to their networks or services could affect their customers, if those networks and services do not support CNI such compromises would not significantly affect national or regional availability. 

When do companies need to start adhering to the Telecommunications (Security) Act?

As the requirements are long and varied and so the timelines to comply have been broken down to help organisations comply. The current Code of Practice expects Tier 1 providers to implement ‘the most straightforward and least resource intensive measures’ by 31 March 2024, and the more complex and resource intensive measures by 31 March 2025.

Tier 2 firms have been given an extra two years on top of the dates outlined above to reflect the relative sizes of providers. Tier 3 providers aren’t in scope of the regulatory changes currently but are strongly encouraged to use the Code of Practice as best practice. The Code of Practice also expects that these firms ‘must continue to take appropriate and proportionate measures to comply with their new duties under the Act and the regulations’. 

How can firms prepare for the Telecommunications (Security) Act?

The TSA introduces a range of new requirements for those in the telecoms industry to understand and follow. These will require a multi-year programme for affected organisations.  An area of high focus for example will be on Third Party controls and managing the relationship with them.  

However there are more common security requirements as well.  From our work with many companies across many different industries, we know that establishing that users accessing corporate systems, data and applications are who they say they are is  a key aspect of reducing risk by limiting the possibility of attacks coming in through the front door. This is a very real risk highlighted in Verizon’s 2022 Data Breaches Investigations Report, which states that around 82% of data breaches involved a human element, including incidents in which employees expose information directly or making a mistake that enables cyber criminals to access the organisation’s systems.   

Therefore, one area to start to try and protect the organisation and take a step on the way to compliance is to build up authentication and secure access to systems, data and applications. However even this can take time to implement over large complex environments. It means gaining an understanding of all devices and ensuring there is a solid profile around them, so they can be reported on, attacks can be blocked and prevented, and access to applications can be controlled as needed.

Where can you find more insight on Telecommunications (Security) Act?

We will be creating more information around the Act as we move closer to the deadlines, including part two of this blog where we will take a deeper dive into themes introduced by the bill, how it compare with other industries’ and jurisdictions’ cyber security initiatives, and explore what else the telecoms industry can do to improve its security posture. 

We are also running events in London on 13 and 17 November: ‘Are you ready for TSA?’ which will include peer discussions where participation is welcome on the TSA. If you are interested in attending, please register here.


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