Building Redundancies in Communications Amidst Growing Threat to Telecoms
By TorchStone Senior Analyst, Ben West
Massive natural gas leaks developed in the Baltic Sea after a series of explosions near the NordStream 1 & 2 pipelines on Sept. 26.
Russia and NATO allies continue to blame each other for the suspected sabotage due to the conflict in Ukraine.
Within two weeks of the NordStream sabotage, train operations in northern Germany came to a halt due to communications disruptions linked to deliberately cut cables.
The author of the incident in Germany is unclear (rail sabotage is common in Europe and often the work of local radical groups); however, the two incidents taken together raise concern over the possibility of a deliberate, coordinated attack on telecommunications infrastructure that could have dire impacts on security and commerce.
Many have pointed to the vulnerability of undersea telecommunication cables, which stretch out over millions of miles, mostly in international waters where securing them is impossible.
While there has not yet been a major, physical attack on telecommunications infrastructure, it is an attractive target for actors like Russia, China, or North Korea as they seek ways to undermine western alliances without declaring all out war.
Even absent the threat of war, companies must have a robust communications plan in place in case of environmental disasters or benign technical failures: both of which are common.
Maintaining redundant communication channels is key to ensuring personnel safety and business continuity during disruptive events—manmade or otherwise.
Vulnerabilities of Ground-Based Telecom Infrastructure
There are a variety of threats facing telecommunications networks ranging from natural disasters to intentional sabotage.
In 2010, an earthquake near Taiwan damaged multiple undersea fiber-optic telecommunication cables, which caused outages in Taiwan and threatened lines of communication to the rest of Asia.
In 2021, Australian police arrested and charged a container ship captain for damage caused by his ship’s anchor to the Australia Singapore Cable during a heavy storm.
Authorities had to disable the communication line, affecting telecommunications reliability in Western Australia.
There is no indication that the captain intended to sever the cables, but he does appear to have acted negligently.
Other threats are more deliberate and motivated by ideological or political beliefs.
Telecommunications infrastructure tends to be expansive, difficult to secure, and critical to any modern-day society, which makes the networks ideal targets for violent individuals seeking to undermine the government.
In 2020, conspiracy theorists convinced that 5G technology caused adverse health effects attacked hundreds of telecom employees, masts, and other equipment around the world, but mostly in Europe.
While the campaign did not lead to any significant outages (most attacks were in heavily urbanized areas with redundant cell coverage) authorities did warn about the impacts the attacks had on emergency services communications.
During a more specific campaign in 2021, nearly 1 million residents in Myanmar lost access to internet after a series of attacks on telecommunications towers following an unpopular military coup.
The service interruptions demonstrate how areas with less robust network redundancy can experience more disruptions.
Increasing Cyber Attack Threat
Recent surveys suggest that telecommunications companies and networks are among the most popular targets in cyber-attacks.
Lumen Technologies assessed that over 1/3 of the 500 largest disruptive attacks in the third quarter of 2021 targeted the telecommunications sector.
Telecommunications networks are popular targets because once attackers establish a foothold within a network, they can leverage access to practically any other target on the same network.
Gaining access to telecommunication networks and monitoring them instead of destroying them can provide a wealth of intelligence on an adversary, making the networks more valuable intact than destroyed.
There is less of a precedent for state-backed kinetic attacks or sabotage on physical telecommunications infrastructure due to the underlying value of the infrastructure.
In active war zones like Ukraine, there have certainly been attacks that have disabled traditional ground-based telecommunications networks, but telecoms have so far managed to remain a taboo target for physical attacks outside of war zones.
That may be because they are much more useful to state actors for information and intelligence purposes.
In a geopolitical conflict theater such as Ukraine, an aggressor such as Russia needs to keep telecom infrastructure in place if it has any intent to compete in the larger battle over information that drives the narrative of who is winning.
However, if a belligerent determines that it is losing the information/intelligence war, it may decide that telecom networks are ultimately working against them and are a legitimate target for attack.
Similarly, in preparation for an attack, a belligerent may seek to gain an advantage over its adversary by disabling telecommunications networks to confuse their target’s response.
Russian cyber-attacks crippled Ukrainian telecom networks during the opening days of the 2022 invasion, and it took some time for Ukrainians to recover from these attacks.
Taiwan indicated its concern that China could pursue a similar plan of battle and earlier this month expressed interest in developing a more robust satellite communications network.
Vulnerabilities of Space-Based Telecom Networks
Taiwan’s interest in satellite communications follows the well-publicized success of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-based internet service in Ukraine shortly after Russia’s invasion.
Even as more traditional Ukrainian communications networks failed under Russian physical and cyber-attacks, Ukrainian forces were able to maintain communications and coordinate actions with the commercially available Starlink receivers.
The success of Starlink in Ukraine highlights the advancement of satellite-based internet and communications networks over the past ten years and will likely be one of the technologies that benefits from the current conflict.
However, satellite-based communications are not fool-proof.
In addition to still being expensive compared to other options, they typically require unobstructed access to the sky, a reliable power source, and are subject to local restrictions.
Any company considering satellite communications as an option should ensure that all three of those conditions are met—and be prepared for sudden changes in regulation that could outlaw the devices.
In April, a French court temporarily banned Starlink internet services citing environmental concerns.
The service is also not available in high-risk countries like Russia, North Korea, Syria, and Iran due to political reasons.
Satellite communication devices are also illegal in countries like India, Libya, and Chad.
An even bigger concern is the suggestion by Chinese researchers to develop “kill methods” for satellite-based internet networks such as Starlink, given the potential military application of the technology.
While destroying satellites in orbit is arguably more difficult than cutting undersea cables, both operating environments suffer from vague legal protections and are impossible to secure completely.
Contingencies and Exercises
Ultimately, there is no single solution to maintaining the integrity of communication channels, and the best practice is to maintain several redundant channels and make sure that personnel are comfortable using them.
In addition to maintaining conventional telecommunication connections over internet and phone lines, local radio handsets can help teams coordinate in times of crisis or outages.
While supplying every employee with a satellite-based internet connection may not be economical, it does make sense to establish several satellite-based connections to support local offices, which can account for and communicate with local employees through handheld radios.
Contingency plans should include pre-established tripwires that, if crossed, would signal to local employees to rally at a predetermined, secure location for full accountability.
In every case, training, testing, and practicing on all communication channels is a necessity.
Investing in satellite-based internet services, handheld radios, or other, more exotic communications channels is worthless unless personnel know how to use them in a crisis.
Conducting regular maintenance on those channels and drills is a necessity.
Surprise exercises may be disruptive but can reveal potentially life-saving blind spots that aren’t as easily revealed by routine drills.
All too often, we take the speed and reliability of 21st-century communications networks for granted.
But failures still occur, and more catastrophic failures could occur as belligerent state-backed actors consider the viability of targeting telecommunication infrastructure.
To ensure the safety of their personnel and business continuity, organizations should review communications contingency plans, train their employees on those plans, and practice them regularly so that they are ready when they need them.