I recently had the pleasure of attending the DSB‘s conference “Civil Preparedness 2016”. There were several interesting speeches, but for UMS as a technology company, lectures related to Electronic Communications (eCom) and data security were the most exciting.
The speakers went a long way in emphasising the importance and the consequences related to data and data communications. It was particularly evident when looking at the importance of data communications as being part of the most critical value chains for a modern society to function well. A few decades ago, the consequence of abruptions in any supply chain was first noticeable after quite some time, maybe days or even weeks. Today the consequences are much more dramatic when it happens and it strikes those who are exposed instantly. Data communications and networks have become the most critical cornerstones of our society.
Einar Lunde from “Norwegian Communications Authority” went so far as to redefine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs adding eCom as a primary basis. This is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a suitable indication of the importance of Electronic Communications for every single person and for society as a whole today.
Considering the importance and dependence on Electronic Communications as part of our infrastructure, it is crucial that it is secured in the best possible way. Providers of eCom services like mobile telephony mostly provide good quality communication services. Recently, providers of mobile services have shown that they are able to maintain good quality of service also under extreme weather conditions. It is therefore a paradox that the suppliers of warning technology for enhanced civil protection constitutes a relevant threat to the Electronic Communications infrastructure. How can this be the case?
Being able to alert the civilian population of incidents that threaten life and health is a social responsibility. The alerting channels used in Norway from the mid 30’s are sirens, but as threats, technology and lifestyles have changed it is more appropriate to use other channels and technologies to gain attention from the civilian population. Today there are many possible channels suited for this purpose; voice messages, SMS, social media and others. It is evident that the public communications network is carrying an array of possibilities of sending warning messages.
We take it for granted that these networks, whether PSTN, mobile networks or IP, give us satisfactory service quality and that there is sufficient capacity. Long response time can be an annoying delay whilst loss or overloading of services can be life-critical.
For service providers to remain in business, whilst also being profitable, correct scaling of the network and infrastructure is important. Too high a capacity is not very cost-effective, whereas low capacity means lower service quality. Finding an optimal dimensioning of the network is therefore essential to provide the right quality at the right price. Correct dimensioning of the network is a science in itself so I will not go into depth on this here, but just note that sizing happens based on knowledge about communication patterns and the number of simultaneous users.
Why is this a relevant topic when we talk about warning technology for enhanced civil protection such as public alerting?
Population alert technology based on the use of public communication is relatively new. It is important to note that such systems generate a traffic pattern that is very different from the traditional pattern. While networks are designed for even traffic, based on an average of normal use, the traffic pattern for alerts is far more brutal. What characterises public alerting is the demand to alert all within a geographical area simultaneously in the shortest possible time.
Telephony networks (whether an older landline or modern mobile network) have local geographical constraints. Overloading is a consequence of ignoring these limitations. The problem arises when systems used to perform public notifications doesn’t respect the local capacity constraints or current traffic load in the network. Experience shows that such systems have a large capacity (for example, many outgoing telephone lines) based on covering events in large and densely populated areas. When the same system used in less populated areas or during events with high load in the network, overload is almost guaranteed.
From a warning application point of view, the consequence of overloading results in either halted communication and message delivery or at best reduced flow of calls and messages. From a population point of view, it can be life-critical. For example, it will be difficult to get through to the emergency services since their local network hub is overloaded.
Simply a remote hypothesis?
Some would say it is a remote hypothesis. The trend, however, has shown that such systems developed for the purpose of critical warning of civilians – are also being used by municipalities or other service providers to inform of service deviation for instance. These are messages that occur more frequently. The probability that a local area may be exposed to overload during a mass notification is real and no remote hypothesis. We therefore believe that the uncontrolled use of this technology in the worst case could be a threat to life and health.
As mentioned, population alert systems using public eCom services are still immature. Rules and legislations are therefore not implemented. Until this happens, it is important that those who acquire population alert solutions are aware of this and set the right requirements for the acquisition.
It is entirely possible to implement a more controlled use of this technology. An alert system needs to be able to dynamically scale capacity according to available infrastructure and current activity. Only with this way, is it possible to ensure that these systems increase civilian security and not achieve the opposite. It is our responsibility as providers of critical population alerting to ensure that the utilisation of such an indispensable and vulnerable infrastructure is done in the right manner.