Critical Infrastructure at a Crossroads

September 23, 2015

For lively dialogue, there was no better place than the UTC Critical Infrastructure Summit in Washington, D.C. last week. Telecommunications managers from utilities had the opportunity to engage with policymakers about the best way to move IT/OT convergence forward, drive standards development and improve spectrum regulation.

The nation’s critical infrastructure provides the essential services that underpin American society and serve as the backbone of our nation’s economy, security and health. Overall, the Department of Homeland Security has defined 16 critical infrastructure sectors. These sectors comprise the assets, systems, and networks, both physical and virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.

Because the vast majority of our nation’s critical infrastructure is privately owned and operated, both the government and private sector have formed partnerships to fulfill our shared responsibility to prevent and reduce the risks of disruptions to critical infrastructure. Together, public-private efforts to strengthen critical infrastructure help the public sector to enhance security and rapidly respond to and recover from all-hazards events and assist the private sector to restore business operations and minimize losses in the face of such an event.

We all rely on critical infrastructure. Securing and making critical infrastructure resilient is a shared responsibility — shared by federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments, private companies and individual citizens — but we, as engineers, play a vital role in keeping it strong, secure and resilient.

While cybersecurity issues dominate the focus of news media attention and government regulatory programs, many other issues don’t receive the attention they should. Specifically, issues regarding the telecommunications networks that are a key component in assuring the reliability and resiliency of the critical infrastructure systems and require not only wireline and fiber-optic facilities, but adequate wireless radio spectrum to operate.

The reality is that with the demand for radio spectrum continuing to explode, driven in large part by the development of enhanced personal communications products and services, economic forces are driving the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate spectrum to the highest bidder while neglecting to assure that adequate spectrum will be available to support operations of critical infrastructure systems.

While commercial services have hundreds of thousands of subscribers sharing network costs, critical infrastructure owners’ systems provide essential internal services and are an operational cost overhead, generating no direct revenues. If economic forces are allowed to totally regulate the spectrum allocation system, we may well all be watching television programming and playing video games on our smart watches, while the nation’s critical infrastructure is placed at greater and greater risk due to the inadequacy of the telecommunications networks which are essential to support them.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
– Henry Ford

For many years I struggled with “interoperability” issues regarding communications networks —how to coordinate communications in times of emergency and disaster. Today, as stresses on critical infrastructure operators continue to mount, security threats proliferate, regulatory pressures increase, and resources become scarcer, I believe it is time to shift our focus from interoperability to convergence.

Let’s consider how the critical infrastructure systems are not only critical to the public and the security of this nation, but how they are mutually interdependent and critical to one another. Critical infrastructure operators must work together if they are to succeed in protecting their own interests and those of this nation. We have the responsibility to encourage all critical infrastructure owners to work together in the best interests of the public and nation. This includes common carrier telecommunications service providers, electric utilities, oil and gas companies, water and sanitary systems, and railroads.

“Share everything and play fair.”
Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1988)

It’s obvious that the common carriers’ profit motives don’t incentivize them to “play fair,” and certainly not to share the radio spectrum. They view the critical infrastructure systems as potential customers for their products, which were never designed to support critical applications like teleprotection and SCADA. The FCC’s role is to allocate spectrum and its use in the best interests of the public, but they too bow to political pressure generated by consumer demand and the huge potential revenues generated by carrier service offerings.

Never has it been so important that critical infrastructure clients recognize the importance of adequate spectrum allocations to support their system reliability and resiliency. While working together with other critical infrastructure owners and fighting the battle for spectrum on the legislative and regulatory front, our clients must also ensure that their strategic plans incorporate creative engineering solutions capitalizing on the few spectrum alternatives that are available, but may no longer be options for those who don’t recognize the opportunities now. 

By Mark Weismantel, PE




  • Infrastructure