Black Sky Communications Risk

Ever found yourself with a tire blowout on the highway? Even if you haven’t, stick with us for a moment. What do you do in this scenario? 1. Carefully steer to the shoulder and change the tire yourself, or 2. call for assistance? Either way, you’re turning to your contingency plan for aid in time of need. 

While this example may be insignificant compared to a black sky event, the concept is clear; having a contingency plan that supports disruptions is vital for our communication, not to mention operational activities should a hazard occur.  

Now, consider COVID-19. Without a doubt, the national telecommunications networks have been pivotal to our ability to respond, adapt, and recover from the pandemic, proving that the ability to communicate in times of disaster is one of our most fundamental needs for coordinating response and recovery activities.  

So, What About a Black Sky Hazard?

First, it’s key to understand what type of event we’re considering; a long-duration, geographically widespread catastrophic event that severely disrupts the normal functioning of our critical infrastructures.

Will our communications networks be there for us again, powering us through those dark and troubling times? Or will we be left alone in the dark, cut off from the world, and with the response-and-recovery mired in confusion and pandemonium?

Unfortunately, the answer is, most likely, the latter. 

You may be wondering, we managed to pull through the coronavirus pandemic, for the most part, so why not a black sky event? 

One simple reason is that it is far too easy to rationalize away the risk as the United States has never experienced a nationwide black sky. And it is for this reason we have collectively failed to take the necessary measures to safeguard ourselves against this oncoming catastrophe. Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning makes black sky events extremely dangerous.

The Black Sky Communications Problem

Black Sky Communication

You need not be a trained communications specialist to understand that today’s communications platforms require electric power and a resilient power grid.

In a black sky event, we will be without power for a long time. And, no power = no telecommunications.

Therefore, our nation is ill-prepared for such an event, with our black sky communications networks vulnerable and prone to failure. 

It may seem reasonable to assume that this problem has a simple solution; ensuring all critical communications systems and nodes have adequate backup power to maintain the networks until grid power can be fully restored. However, as with most large-scale problems, simple solutions are much harder to implement than imagine.

Communicating and operating in a catastrophic event will require a number of communications platforms, for example, cellular networks, fiber interconnects, data centers, business and supply chain communications, and media and government communications. And each of these communications platforms faces many challenges when it comes to hardening them against a black sky. 

Cellular Communications Capabilities 

Given our society’s heavy reliance on cellular communications capabilities, it should seem that having sufficient backup power at all cell sites is a no-brainer, and yet the FCC has tried and failed multiple times to get this requirement mandated.

Why so? The easy answer is funding, but there are many contributing factors beyond the simple cost of generators. 

Like the electric grid, the transportation network, and so many other critical infrastructure systems, the cellular network was not centrally planned but grew organically.

Because of this, some cell sites are stand-alone towers, while others are on rooftops, some are rural, and others are deep in the middle of urban areas.

For this reason, many sites cannot accommodate a backup generator, and even if they could, they are unable to support on-site fuel storage.

Beyond the physical siting requirements, on-site fuel storage introduces additional regulatory and environmental compliance issues and may force leases to be renegotiated or canceled.

It is not a simple matter of moving the cellular radio equipment to a new location that can support both the generator and on-site fuel storage requirements because an appropriate site must encompass many additional considerations, including: 

  • antenna height restrictions, 
  • line-of-site to network aggregators, 
  • access to fiber for fiber-optic backhaul, 
  • network coverage, 
  • etc.

Of course, we selected the cell sites to cover any dead spots in the cellular network. But even with all of the cell sites we have installed today, our nation still lacks ubiquitous cellular coverage, especially in rural areas.

5G Capabilities

5G introduces a whole new spate of issues.

Without getting too technical, 5G technology requires more cell sites to operate than current technology due to the propagation characteristics of the higher frequency bands and frequency reuse plans, meaning that 5G requires more cell sites, not less.

5G equipment requires less power to operate, which may make backup power issues less of a problem, on the one hand. But ultimately, the high density of necessary sites will most likely exacerbate the problem.

However, one of the issues with 5G is that it has all of the telecommunications network provider’s bandwidth – if you don’t mind the pun.

Currently, the focus is on growing the new network, not on hardening the current network. After all, 5G promises to help usher in the 4th Industrial Revolution, and most nations understand the importance of being one of the leaders of the 4th Industrial Revolution, not a follower. Therefore, it becomes a matter of tradeoff; the next generation of wireless technology and a 4th Industrial Revolution leader, or network resiliency against a black sky?

All this, of course, only scratches the surface of all of the issues involved with hardening our cellular network infrastructure against an attack. Remember, we have not considered the challenges other communications platforms will face. But, what is clear is they will encounter similar issues due to their reliance on electricity and the power grid.

The “Right” Number of Connected Devices

Black Sky network

The value of a network grows exponentially based on the number of connected devices (Metcalf’s law) and the number of connections between devices (Reed’s law). Telecommunications networks today, connecting over 21.5 billion devices, carry voice, data, video, telemetry, and other IoT data. All this is something that we cannot replicate by a comparatively small number of geographically dispersed voice-only nodes and limited data connectivity.

Of course, we will not need all 21.5 billion devices connected to have an impactful response and recovery and rebuild from a black sky event. But we will need to have enough of the right devices connected to achieve sufficient network value and enable us to slow the spreading effects of such an event.

Responding, recovering, and rebuilding from a catastrophe will require us to muster more emergency communications devices than ever before, as a black sky will be unlike anything we have ever experienced. Therefore, it is difficult to conceptualize how big the impact will be. What we do know; every day that the power remains down, the problem will grow exponentially, and the prospects for a rapid recovery, inflicting minimal damage, will dwindle.

What Steps Can We Take To Mitigate the Damage? 

We can take steps to ensure our telecommunications networks will be available, such as:  

  • Hardening key black-start facilities (the sites power companies use to restart the grid),
  • Hardening key communications platforms against EMP (electromagnetic pulse) and ensuring they are power-secure,
  • Leveraging new technologies like spectrum-sharing and fallow-spectrum harvesting. This is to allow emergency communications systems, such as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ BNET Software Defined Radio (SDR) system, to provide maximum coverage in the impacted area,
  • Leveraging new technologies like private LTE. These allow critical infrastructure to provide a common platform to their workers while ensuring the system is not dependent on the national networks to operate,
  • Developing plans that incorporate cross-sector communications capabilities. This is to provide for rapid critical infrastructure restoration, preventing mass migrations of populations.

Fortunately, groups like us and our partners are working on solving this problem.

By educating the public, conducting training, convening thought leaders, doing the research, raising capital, recruiting partners, and developing new and innovative processes and products, we can work together to prepare for a catastrophe.

So, black sky communications risk: can we solve the most important question in time?

The answer lies in our efforts. Join us in our efforts to build a bridge back from armageddon and prepare for the worst. If you’re interested in finding out more about black sky hazards and our work to secure the world’s future, contact us today.

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