Risk and Security in the Telecommunications Industry Series – Part 1

The worst case scenario – a strong earthquake strikes California, disabling the carrier hotel at One Wilshire, disrupting operations at submarine cable landing stations in both the Los Angeles area and central California, with a resulting tsunami hitting Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.

LA Hit by TsunamiCommunications are severed to most of the South Pacific, and severely degraded to allow for only emergency services and national defense usage within the west coast of the United States. Financial and government communications are disrupted and severely limited into Japan, Hong Kong, and China.

Telecom carriers in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Australia work frantically to restore cable, Internet, and telecom capacity from the Pacific submarine cable systems through the Indian Ocean to Europe and the US east coast. Seattle and San Francisco still have some connectivity, however cable systems from Grover Beach to San Diego are inoperable, limiting connections to those which were designed with automatic rerouting through North Pacific cable systems.

Sound crazy? No, it is not crazy, and there is a very good possibility a similar scenario will occur within our lifetime. In fact, when you look at the concern raised when the recent Los Angeles “Station Fire” threatened the telecommunications facility at Mt. Wilson many people were surprised at the potential disruption to both civilian and government communications if that facility were destroyed.

Los Angeles law enforcement uses the transmission towers to manage emergency communications throughout the LA area, fire departments, AM/FM radio stations, digital broadcast television stations – many were single threaded through Mt. Wilson as their primary local communications infrastructure. Not to mention the three letter federal agencies which use the facility for, well whatever they use it for…

Not a New Problem

Several US agencies have looked at this problem for many years. Agencies addressing the problem include the National Communications System (NCS), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Reliability and Interoperability Council (NRIC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and an additional continuing special taskforce mandated by the president called the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC).

As recently as four years ago, an NSTAC report concluded “the telecommunications industry has shown that it is unlikely that a loss of assets in a single telecom hotel would cause a nationwide disruption of the (USA) critical telecommunications infrastructure.” Which may be true for the US infrastructure, as all major American carriers are interconnected at numerous locations scattered across the United States. In short, while the local LA community may be seriously disrupted in the event of the big earthquake, communications between Miami and New York would still be possible with little disruption.

AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and QWEST are all well-meshed in their networks. As long as they are not sharing the same cable routes, or even in some cases the same actual cables, if the companies are subcontracting their long distance or local loops from other wholesale cable companies such as Level 3, XO, or Time Warner Telecom.

The International Factor

Ten years ago the United States could stand alone in our communications infrastructure. International communications were strong, and submarine cables were in use, however much of the international communications infrastructure was still done through use of satellites. Even if a submarine cable was disrupted, carriers could easily restore their communications through use of existing satellite restoral and recovery agreements.

Now, in the Internet age of high capacity telecom infrastructure, generally provisioned in multiples of 10 Gigabit per second links, satellite capacity has quickly become a fraction of the bandwidth driving international communications. Even the old telephone networks are being integrated by international and US carriers into their Internet infrastructure, often sharing the same circuits are streaming media, social networks, general web traffic, and other entertainment applications.

This will not be as easy to restore in the event California gets the big earthquake we all know is coming.

The Risks and Vulnerabilities Series

This series will look at several aspects of the telecommunications business, including:

  • International telecom vulnerabilities
  • Government interest, activities, and opinions on the risks and vulnerabilities of both US and international communications infrastructure
  • The role of the carrier hotel and internet exchange point in international communications
  • Interviews with people on the front lines of communication security
  • Recommendations for both the telecommunications industry, and the global user community

I look forward to reader comments, critiques, flames, constructive recommendations, and other ideas related to this discussion. Please add your comments to this blog, and I will ensure your voice is both heard and considered.

John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie that has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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