AT&T's New Fiber Could Stymie U.S. Disaster Response Communications

AT&T's plan to roll out next-gen fiber optic cables nationwide as a replacement for its traditional copper-based telephone networks is great in most respects—save for the fact that it won't support the government's special telephone service for national emergencies.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, AT&T's new fiber network won't support a priority line, called Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, which is used during disasters or terrorist attacks when phone lines are usually clogged. Essentially, the new AT&T network would force government to use the same—potentially inundated—phone networks as everyone else to communicate, potentially delaying first responders.

GETS has proved invaluable in the past. It served 10,000 phone calls during 9/11 and, along with its wireless counterpart WPS, 45,000 during Hurricane Katrina. AT&T, though, was planning to democratize its phone network, and not allow any lines to demand priority access to the nation's telephone network. Jason Healey, a security expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told the Washington Post:

"All the Internet knows how to do is pass things from point A to point B. So if there's a denial-of-service attack, and VoIP was significantly throttled back, the Internet itself would not know that this is the president's VoIP call trying to get through."

Indeed, implementing a GETS-style system on fiber isn't perfectly straightforward. But the DHS's concerns have been noted at AT&T, which explains that it is "working with DHS and within industry" to solve the problem, adding that it want's to "deploy exactly the kind of communications networks [the DHS] need." Of course it does. [Washington Post via Engadget]

Top image: After a March 1, 2007 tornado destroyed the high school in Enterprise, Alabama, taking the lives of eight students, state officials signed a law requiring safe rooms in new K-12 schools. AL.com/Press-Register, Mike Kittrell, via Designing for Disaster