Report Highlights Telecoms Vulnerabilities

Report Highlights Telecoms Vulnerabilities

Defence and telecommunications experts are urging Australia to develop its own satellite capability in the wake of a damming report on failures in US critical infrastructure protection.

According to Stratwar Director Dr Adam Cobb, the recent US General Accounting Office (GAO) report on Critical Infrastructure Protection highlights Australia’s vulnerability to telecommunications failure as an island nature, and its need to develop a mix of geostationary and low earth orbiting satellites for communications purposes.

“I’ve been arguing for those for some time,” Cobb says. “Optus used to have satellites, and we sold them. It’s pretty insane.”

Cobb says the GAO report highlights the lack of foresight demonstrated in the Australian Government’s decision to approve the takeover of Cable and Wireless Optus by Singapore Telecom in 2001. And he labelled the Defence Department assessment that the sale would not be against Australia’s Defence national interest as “barking mad.”

“We should have indigenous satellite capability,” he says. “If you have a look at the paucity of redundancy in the civilian communications upon which Defence communications currently depend, particularly in the far north, then there’s a strong case I think to be made from a Defence case alone.”

The GAO study indicates that after more than three years, the Departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Commerce, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, still haven’t completed the fundamental processes necessary to identify infrastructure assets and vulnerabilities. Washington-based telecom and satellite industry attorney Maury Mechanick of White and Case LLP says the failures could severely impede recovery efforts in the event of a terrorist attack or other national emergency.

“It’s vital that these agencies working in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security fully understand the susceptibilities of different telecommunications technologies,” he says. “Satellite-based networks, for example, are extremely reliable and dependable in times of crisis. Their inherent mobility, instant re-configurability and point-to-multipoint transmission capability are important features that make satellites an integral component of our critical telecommunications in the event of national crisis.”

Mechanick says different telecommunication technologies have different vulnerabilities. For any terrestrial wireline network, whether copper wire or fibre optics, the physical destruction of lines would disrupt the network's functioning. In the case of the switched network, the switching nodes are also vulnerable. In the case of wireless (cellular telephony), the main vulnerability is with the repeater antennas. The destruction of even a few antennas will disrupt cellular coverage.

“Satellites deployed in space are probably the least susceptible to physical attack, although the ground stations communicating with the satellites are as vulnerable as any other ground facilities,” he says. “However, in the case of satellite networks, if ground facilities were knocked out, the network can be re-established almost immediately through the use of transportable antennas. This applies in the case of satellite systems offering more conventional telecommunications services as well as for satellites specifically designed to provide mobile services.”

He says as an island nation, Australia may be even more vulnerable if communications links go down, because it has far less alternatives than places like Europe or North America.

“In a worse case scenario — say a terrorist attack, act of war on native soil, or catastrophe natural disaster such as a major earthquake, tsunami or asteroid hitting the earth which knocks out all or part of the country's communications infrastructure — it might still be possible to cobble together a restoration plan even under such difficult conditions. However, if you haven't done a complete analysis determining both the infrastructure's weaknesses and assets ahead of time, including implementing and doing some testing of your emergency plan, (which is what Congress called for and the GAO Study criticised for failing to happen), you will have no way of knowing whether or not that contingency plan will work, which obviously could prove disastrous,” he says.

Mechanick says most of these agencies didn't fall behind in their infrastructure research and preparation out of lack of concern, but rather due to limited funding and labour shortages. Now that Congress will be authorising additional funding under the Department of Homeland Security, the likelihood of the agencies being able to comply with federal law will significantly increase. Lawmakers will also likely put far more pressure on the agencies to complete the audit in light of the GAO study.

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