WSi News2021-08-27 07:41:51

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How the government can prepare for connectivity outages in a post-pandemic world

By Ari Schuler

Although COVID-19 has kept many people home and staying safe, front-line operators have continued to carry out law enforcement, rescue, and public safety missions. For those of us who can work remotely as we help stop the spread of COVID-19, it is easy to forget there remains a constant – if not growing – threat to our urban communications grid. To ensure public safety activities can go forward no matter what the environment, public safety officials must have reliable and redundant communications capabilities. 

Threats to our Networks - Both New and Old

The Nashville bombing that took place last December resulted in “significant damage” to a key AT&T transmission facility responsible for providing wireless and wired communications across parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. According to The Verge, this included 911 networks as well as Nashville International Airport. As made clear by the Nashville attack, law enforcement needs capabilities that do not fail and enable shared situational awareness to ensure the safety of all. First responders need access to secure available networks in the event of disruption – whether caused by a natural disaster, a man-made terrorist or domestic extremist attack.

Following the Nashville attack as well as the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, The Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin regarding the threat of violence against critical infrastructure, including the electric, telecommunications and healthcare sectors. It highlights the need for redundant networks in the event that communications infrastructure is damaged or technology is used for nefarious purposes.

We also have to consider international threats to our networks. According to a GAO report published in 2019 as well as New York Times Cybersecurity Reporter Nicole Perlroth, several malicious actors have already infiltrated our government networks and infrastructure systems: “No one has actually used this access to turn off the power yet. But it’s two clicks away. It’s time to really wake up.” Per Reuters, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned UN officials last month about the very same threat: "White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are more than domestic terror threats. They are becoming a transnational threat. Today, these extremist movements represent the number one internal security threat in several countries."

In addition to violent extremism, wildfires and other extreme weather pose a constant threat to our communication systems - often from unexpected events, like the kind we saw in Texas last winter. As someone who has witnessed the effects of mother nature, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate echoes these sentiments. At a conference last year, he recalled that when he responded to critical hurricane rescue and response efforts, many cellphones were effectively inoperable due to the loss of cell towers. When volunteers or emergency personnel have no way of knowing where help is needed and no way to communicate once they arrive on the scene, their ability to support response efforts is typically underutilized. Just because local and federal officials can operate using local cell and wifi networks in an urban setting, those comms are no longer guaranteed due to the unpredictable impact of mother nature. Local and federal agencies need to ensure they have a layer of redundant, resilient, and low-cost connectivity baked into their communications plan in order to be prepared to face both human and natural disasters.

Decentralize networks to eliminate single points of failure

We often take for granted the ubiquitous nature of communications. Our greatest worry as civilians is whether or not we will have 5G or how many ‘bars’ we’ll have in a given area. What is a nuisance for a civilian presents significant operational impacts to responders. Law enforcement and public safety typically have voice radios which can survive a loss of cell phone connectivity. But what if those voice radio frequencies are flooded during a state or national emergency? What if a record-breaking hurricane destroys the radio towers emergency responders were relying on? What if you need to coordinate the location of multiple agencies during response efforts in a way that voice communications are inefficient or insufficient for?

It’s time to re-examine our most critical communications. We need to prioritize which kinds of data need to be transmitted between the frontlines to the command center to ensure responders can carry out their jobs safely and efficiently, no matter the circumstance. We need to re-evaluate the challenges that keep our responders and agents from having the information they need to carry out their job. When cellular networks are denied or destroyed, having a resilient and low-cost layer to your communications stack is crucial to making sure public safety officers can deliver the most crucial data required for a successful response.

Both software and hardware solutions that mitigate this problem have made significant progress over the past five years. Situational awareness capabilities like ATAK, or other incident command capabilities previously required cellular networks to backhaul data. In the last few years alone, lightweight, low-power, low-cost mesh capabilities have arisen which can ensure data is relayed across great distances without relying on any cell, wifi or fixed infrastructure whatsoever.

As free government software, ATAK enables operators and command staff to visualize the location of public safety officers such as police officers, EMTs and tactical law enforcement as “dots on a map.” In addition to position-location information (PLI) for operators and assets, frontline officers and incident command are able to communicate with text messages via ATAK, and with appropriate mesh radio capability, to do so with zero infrastructure. This shared situational awareness dramatically increases safety for all involved. Using apps like ATAK over a mesh network also allows emergency personnel to communicate via text when voice communications are operationally not feasible and/or available. Relying on a decentralized mesh network prevents officers from being isolated during potentially dangerous activities as well as enables officers to operate across various agencies and assess the threat of a situation. Today’s mesh network devices are off-the-shelf and ready to go during a high-capacity event. These devices have already been tested in areas with zero to no connectivity by emergency teams.

Satellite capabilities are also rapidly advancing with the deployment of next-generation satellite fleets. Both low-cost/high-bandwidth and ultra low-cost/low-bandwidth solutions are being offered by numerous providers. These types of offerings are proof that off-grid communications are becoming more ubiquitous and cost-effective. We are living in a new era of low-bandwidth, low-cost communications. Hybrid mesh/satellite communications will provide an unprecedented level of connectivity to public safety efforts at a price that will support deployment to jurisdictions of all sizes. 

We may still be in the midst of a pandemic, but with vaccines being deployed and testing capacity increasing, a return to normal is finally in sight. Major disruptions to our communications grid – driven by bad actors as well as nature – have provided stark reminders of the continuous threat our responders and society face. We want to come out of the pandemic prepared. Ensuring our law enforcement and public safety operators at the federal, state, local, tribal and territorial levels have the necessary communication tools to protect themselves and the public no matter the threat should be one of our nation’s highest priorities.

Ari Schuler is Chief Operating Officer at goTenna, the world’s leading mobile mesh networking platform, working to decentralize connectivity and address society’s ultimate last mile. goTenna customers include all branches of the U.S. military and the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, as well as state and local public safety organizations.


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