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Key considerations for critical infrastructure communications

By H. Wayne Duff, Jr.

Critical infrastructure defines all the assets, systems and networks in place to store and safeguard information vital to national security in the United States. So vital, in fact, that its incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on everything from economic security to public health and safety. Critical infrastructure is the country’s foundation, and compromising it would result in significant implications to the economy, security and overall health of our nation.

The critical infrastructure sectors require strict guidelines, standards and oversight by government organizations. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), for example, oversees compliance and creation of regulations to ensure that communications systems can withstand even the most trying scenarios, including but not limited to intentional “radio frequency jamming” attacks. Strict guidelines and policies are set in place because this communication infrastructure is not something to be taken lightly. It is not an optional part of a critical facility’s budget – it is a “must-have.”

Scenarios

“Radio frequency jamming” is a very real threat for critical infrastructure sectors. Intentional tampering with mission-critical radio transmissions constitutes a major risk to critical infrastructure and the public which relies on the services these facilities provide. Interrupting even a portion of an asset deemed to be ‘critical’ can have devastating consequences, as key information and capabilities may not be able to run smoothly and efficiently. Because these types of facilities have become attractive targets for terrorists, maintaining network interoperability is paramount to ensure safety officials are equipped to protect our critical infrastructure and able to communicate with local, state and federal entities across the region.

It is important to know what tools and best practices can be used to ensure uninterrupted communications in the event that critical infrastructure comes under attack. As an example, a nuclear facility’s communications needs are very diverse, ranging from highly robust and secure networks for security personnel to more cost-effective solutions for operations and maintenance. Today, many security officers are required to carry two, and in some cases three, radios in an attempt to meet NRC regulations regarding possible intentional jamming. However, attempting to utilize multiple radios during a critical incident is not practical and creates considerable safety issues.

Solutions

Encrypted communications are needed for security, as most radio communication today can be easily intercepted through commercially available scanners or rogue radios. Without a properly protected system, attackers can exploit a lack of security to monitor internal and external transmissions or even interrupt them. Encryption is a foundational, but critical step in protecting transmissions and systems. The deployment of a multiband trunking Project 25 (P25) communications system is the most effective and reliable solutions to address radio frequency jamming. This solution provides trunked radio channels in 700Mhz, 800Mhz, UHF, and VHF (all frequency bands) operating on the same system. A working channel can be in one frequency band, while the control channel is in a different frequency band. The end user relies on a multiband radio that works on all frequency bands. If one frequency band is jammed, the system automatically switches to another frequency band, and the end user does not have to do anything. They continue to communicate on the multiband radio which automatically switches to the next available frequency band.  The main issue is this solution mitigates RF jamming in all frequency bands, and it does not require any user intervention. The last thing security personnel want to have to do is manipulate their radio during a crisis. When time is of the essence, and lives are on the line, mission critical communications is a must.

The capability for agencies using different radio systems and technologies to communicate seamlessly, either in emergency situations or in day-to-day operations, is known as interoperability. Interoperability is also essential to protecting critical infrastructure. The current industry standard for mission critical communications is known as Project 25 (P25). It enables interoperability between agencies and allows for better communication in times of emergency for public safety workers. While most manufacturers are supporting this standard, there is a danger that certain vendors can and will use proprietary technology which hinders interoperable communications.

Those charged with protecting critical infrastructures need the tools and technology to support secure, interoperable communications, and protect against signal jamming and other communications interference with multiband trunking technology. Overall, facilities need a solution that detects jamming threats, removes the affected resource from service and moves users to unaffected frequencies with no disruption in communications – all without the need for user intervention. As the “bad guys” become more sophisticated and the threat level goes up around critical infrastructure, it is essential that security forces are armed with the ideal tools to ensure uninterrupted communications in any emergency scenario.

H. Wayne Duff, Jr. is Area Sales Manager, Harris RF Communications

 

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