Strategist urges protection for wireless infrastructure

The nation's wireless infrastructure is 'one of the most important and least protected parts' of its communications capability, according to a technology strategist.

David Porte, an executive with technology incubator Astrolabe Innovations of Cambridge, Mass., said the World Trade Center attacks were a case in point. The trade center towers housed hubs for multiple types of communications: broadcast, land-line telecommunications and cellular phones. Yet when the towers fell, 'cell phones became the primary means of national security communications.'

Lack of standardization caused more problems, Porte said, because when one carrier's network goes down, most wireless phones can't switch to another network.

Wireless devices provide secondary service when primary means fail, Porte said, but they also provide individual coordination and comfort. 'Don't discount those uses in times of national crisis,' he said, speaking recently at a Newport, R.I., conference sponsored by the National High-Performance Computing and Communications Council.

Because wireless services rely heavily on wireline infrastructure, it's critical to protect both, Porte said. He suggested several steps for agencies and vendors:
  • Create a cooperative industry-government alliance to prepare for emergencies. That's now happening only on an ad hoc basis, Porte said.

  • Follow the best practices for vulnerability assessment recommended by the Network Reliability and Interoperability Council.

  • Don't rely on a consumer-grade telecom system for national emergencies.

  • Encourage density and duplication of cells and wireless hubs.

  • Decide what emergency features are most important. Enhanced 911 capability for locating wireless phones is a great idea, Porte said, but it would be very expensive, and no one knows if it would work in a widespread emergency.

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