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What is an OTA update (over-the-air update)?

July 18, 2023

An over-the-air (OTA) update is the wireless delivery of new software, firmware or other data to mobile devices.

Wireless carriers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) typically use over-the-air updates to deploy firmware and configure phones for use on their networks over Wi-Fi or mobile broadband. The initialization of a newly purchased phone, for example, requires an over-the-air update. With the rise of smartphones, tablets and internet of things (IoT) devices, carriers and manufacturers have turned to different over-the-air update architecture methods for deploying new OSes to these devices.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of OTA updates?
OTA updates are a more efficient way for OEMs to fix bugs and update software than to manually upgrade each individual device. OTA updates can catch issues before devices launch, which can save OEMs time and money, as well as reduce the software development and quality-assurance (QA) process. OTA updates also enable OEMs to update software more easily on devices that are difficult to access, such as advertising displays.

An OTA update is also convenient for end users because it prevents them from having to go to a physical store or connect to a PC to update their devices. Instead, the end user only needs to press a button on their smartphone to download a software update, for example.

There are some security risks involved with OTA updates. OEMs that don't properly secure their OTA update process can enable hackers to change the device's software. Attackers can push unofficial updates that introduce security vulnerabilities. For example, an OTA company called Adups gained notoriety in 2016 for installing adware and spyware to collect personal information from devices.

To avoid security breaches, OEMs should encrypt and authenticate OTA updates and deliver them to end users via a secure protocol.

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