Protecting communications

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Ever more sophisticated communications networks increasingly connect Americans to each other. From banking to farming, from manufacturing to retailing, almost every aspect of private commercial activity depends on smoothly functioning, interdependent communications. And, this is true as well for the functioning of our government.

What would happen if we suddenly lost the ability to communicate? Worse yet, what if communications go down during a time of crisis? Such an event is possible, of course. Indeed, it has already occurred.

What happened on September 11, 2001, should have taught us a very important lesson: Our communications systems are most likely to fail precisely when we need them most — and we must do what we reasonably can in advance to protect ourselves. This is especially so with regard to federal agencies that must carry on vital government functions, ranging from emergency response and disaster relief to protecting food safety and ensuring continuation of business and commerce.

In Lower Manhattan, most phone traffic poured into a network point that suddenly was damaged. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, fiber-optic cables beneath the buildings were crushed and a nearby Verizon switching office sustained massive damage. Cell phones, which some consider a “backup” system, proved at key points unreliable as an alternate means of communications, due to damaged facilities and traffic overload.

Immediately following September 11, it became apparent a broader communications failure had occurred due to the lack of truly redundant facilities. For example, despite dual access in and out of its Manhattan buildings, the Bank of New York still lost communications capability because all communications were routed through the same telephone central office. Many other organizations confronted the same reality.

Thousands of customers still had no phone service a month after the September 11 attacks. Certainly that demonstrated the vulnerability of communications networks that lack true redundancy and diverse routing.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal in October 2001: “All across the country, towns and smaller cities rely on only one hub, meaning that they could lose touch completely if that hub were wiped out. In many larger cities, phone traffic is funneled in very concentrated routes in and out of town.”

Entities that maintained communications capability in September 11’s wake typically had installed redundant facilities in the form of a fixed-wireless backup system using small rooftop transceivers to route traffic to switching centers separate from the switching offices of the incumbent telephone company.

Skip to August 2003. During the Great Northeast Blackout, the U.S. experienced a number of communications problems. Most critical backup systems worked, but there were many failures. New York City and Detroit Emergency 911 call systems were disrupted. In Metro Detroit and Canada, many cell phones and police communications systems faltered.

These crises demonstrate the need to have communications networks that will remain up and running at all times. And such reliability is especially important for government offices. Yet, even today, many federal agencies apparently still are not significantly better prepared than many corporations were two years ago. Many federal buildings apparently still lack network redundancy, and, thus, are too vulnerable to communications disruptions.

A December 2003 Markle Foundation report claims the government “does not appear to have taken the necessary steps to build the communications and sharing network required to deal with the [terrorist] threat.” It calls for creating a network with “multiple and redundant communications pathways” so there are “no single points of failure.” This concern was underscored by an Administration National Security White Paper released last year recognizing reliability is compromised when carrier facilities are concentrated in the same location like “telecom hotels, collocation sites or peering points.” Indeed, the White Paper warned that, “The industry’s physical assets are increasingly concentrated in shared facilities.”

Thus, it appears more is needed to enhance the reliability and security of the communications infrastructure upon which federal government operations depend.

I propose the following: If not done, the government should adopt a policy focusing systematically — in view of priorities of mission criticality and costs — on the need for redundant communications facilities where federal personnel work. To be redundant, entry and exit points for alternative providers should be physically separated from the facilities of the incumbent provider by a significant distance. And the alternative facilities should use a separate right-of-way between the building and the routing center and also a separate switching or routing center.

Finally, FCC should modify regulations to encourage more investment in new communications infrastructure. These regulations now overemphasize encouraging competitors to share common facilities.

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