Communications infrastructure vulnerability

I was speaking with a friend of mine recently about some interference issues he was having at an FM transmitter site.  There were several cellular and PCS tenants at this site and something from the FM transmitter was interfering with the GPS receivers.  This one very small glitch was causing multiple carriers to go offline, basically shutting down the entire wireless infrastructure at this particular site.

GPS signals are used for syncing carrier frequencies and modulation timing for CDMA and TDMA that all cellular, PSC, and 3G, 4G (or whatever G) wireless systems use to seamlessly hand off users from one site to another.  Without it, the entire system will shut down.

What would happen to communications in this country if all GPS were interrupted?  When I was in the military, we spoke often about high-altitude nuclear detonations and the possible effects they would have on our communications circuits.  In fact, we drilled for such things.  Often.  What, if anything, are wireless carriers doing to keep their sites online if, heaven forbid, somebody does something to disrupt GPS?  If terrestrial radio and television broadcasting is going to be replaced by 3G and 4G wireless networks, how redundant are they?  I know, for example, many cell sites do not have long-term backup power.  They have battery banks, which in a power outage, may last 6-10 hours, but after that, the site is down.

Further, how about vulnerabilities getting the data to and from these sites?  Most cell sites rely on some type of TELCO circuit, usually a T-1 (DS-1) or multiple T-1 to interface with the wired network.  This includes voice, text, and data services.  If those circuits are down, then anything connected to them will be offline.

What about redundant transmitters, antennas, receivers, etc?  How much of the current wireless infrastructure is backed up with spares?  It causes me worry to think that someday traditional broadcasters will be going out of business due to poor financial planning, leaving us all to subscription-based data services that may or may not be there in an emergency.  At least with many radio and TV stations, there are generators, backup transmitters, microwave systems, and so forth.  Most good broadcasters have emergency plans for the restoration of service during a disaster.  EAS may not be the greatest thing ever, but right now, it is the only emergency communications plan we have. Radio is still the best and most robust way to communicate vital information during emergencies.  Cell sites go offline along with whatever G wireless service, cable TV systems go offline due to power outages or damaged distribution networks, landline phones can be taken out due to power interruptions at the company office, or damaged networks.

Why do I care? Why should you care?  Because, as I have eluded in previous posts, with the demise of local newspapers, the demise of local radio, the erosion of local TV news coverage, and the general trivialization of our political apparatus on the local and national levels, we are losing our voice.  We will lose our democracy.  Right now, the US is on the verge of becoming an oligarchy or a corporatocracy.

What road are we traveling down when unrestricted free access to information is gone?  The internet is a great resource, but it is not free.  What will happen to the price of internet access when competing information and entertainment technologies such as radio, TV, and newspapers disappear?  Look to our transportation sector for an example.  Gone are the vast majority of passenger railroads that crisscrossed the country for nearly 100 years.  In many places, public transportation is laughable.  How do you get to work?  How do you get to the store?  How much will $5.00 per gallon of gas affect your life?  More importantly, what can you do about it when the cost of fuel gets expensive? Nothing.  Most people are stuck in their suburban homes with not even a convenience store within walking distance.

What will happen when terrestrial radio goes away?  I shudder to think.

In the public interest

Once upon a time, usually during a license renewal period, a radio station listener might hear the following on the air:

On May 15, 2001, Radio Station KZZZ (FM) was granted a license by the Federal Communication Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until December 1, 2005. Our license will expire December 1, 2005. We must file for license renewal with the FCC by August 1, 2005. When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection during our regular business hours. It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last four years. Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the FCC by November 1, 2005. Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is a available at the KZZZ offices, located at 555 Main Street in Smallville, or may be obtained from the Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C. 20554.

So what does “Granted to serve the public interest mean?”  Perhaps having a news department, or sponsoring a debate in the local mayor’s race, perhaps a Sunday morning church service.  Maybe some High School football or even broadcasting emergency information such as tornado warnings or a flood warning.

How about broadcasting a flood warning to your listeners that are taking part in a station promotion?  How about if said station promotion happens to be taking place in a flood plain, and warnings issued several hours before the promotion is scheduled?  No?  You can’t make this stuff up, no one would believe you:

A Clear Channel station in Grand Rapids, MI threw its annual B93 Concert Bash on June 20 in nearby Ionia by the Grand Rapids River, apparently oblivious to flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service.

No, nothing bad can come of this right? right?  Of course the inevitable happend.  The river overflowed its banks, causing concertgoers to flee for their lives and flooding the parking area submerging their cars.  Naturally, Clear Channel will pay those who had their cars towed out of the mud right.  Nope, you listeners are on your own, tough shit.

Then there is the now infamous Minot train derailing. For those not familiar, a train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed and spilled its contents.  When local officials attempted to activate EAS, they couldn’t.  They then attempted to call the LP-1 station on the phone to get the information out, but nobody was home.  Clear Channel placed the blame squarely on the local law enforcement agencies stating that they had not installed their EAS equipment properly and had changed frequencies on their radio link without notifying the radio station.  Perhaps, but it seems there is more than enough blame to share.  Were station employees proactive with the local government officials?  I can’t say, but they should have been.  EAS is a team effort.

Not to pile onto Clear Channel too much, Cumulus seems to encourage their listeners to head outdoors, and enjoy the good weather.  During a tornado warning.  Nice.

By this, It would appear that the public is interested in fleeing for their lives, having their cars flooded, all the while wondering what is going on.

No matter how hard people try, nothing can replace radio’s role in alerting the public.  Mass e-mail systems, Blackberries, and other internet-based systems will fail when the power goes out and kills the supporting ethernet infrastructure.  Cellphones, PCS devices, and I-phones become unreliable during emergencies because the TELCO system that supports them gets clogged with traffic.  Many cellphone towers do not have backup generators.  During the events of 9/11/2001, I experienced firsthand the difficulties of trying to use the wired telephone network due to congestion.  Since the HDTV rollout, cable companies have become the backbone for the distribution of TV signals.  Coaxial-based cable systems rely on booster amplifiers every mile or two to keep the signal strengths usable.  Those amplifiers need power from the utility grid.  Not to mention, most TVs cannot run on batteries and lack portability.

Almost everyone owns a battery-powered portable radio.  When the shit hits the fan, they will turn it on.  What will they hear?

So where is the official outrage?  Why have not the big radio CEOs,  public trustees each, been dragged before Congress to explain themselves?