The Nashville bombing has exposed the US communication infrastructure inefficiencies in a big way.
On Christmas morning, Nashville woke up to a massive explosion when a man detonated a bomb inside an RV. The bombing took place outside an AT&T facility in downtown Nashville. The bomber, later identified as Anthony Q. Warner, also perished in the bombing. He was present inside the vehicle before the bomb went off. Before the bomb detonated, officers and other witnesses reported hearing an RV broadcast to warn bystanders. It asked individuals to evacuate the site because a bomb was about to explode.
The only casualty reported was the bomber. However, three officers that were present at the scene suffered minor injuries. The incident damaged many homes and businesses. Law authorities are yet to determine the bomber’s motive behind the explosion.
The limited casualties in the explosion certainly feel like a Christmas miracle. Many countries, including the United States, has also seen its fair share of bombings, shootings, and other incidents of terrorism, with innumerable people losing their lives.
While the Nashville bombing did not wreak the type of havoc generally associated with such incidents, it did inflict damage in other ways. The explosion laid devastation to the region’s communications infrastructure instead. It prompted a series of technological failures that compromised emergency services and other vital operations. It also disrupted the communication networks required for day-to-day communication.
The bombing is a solemn reminder of the inadequacy and fragility of our infrastructure for managing urgent communications. It throws light on some difficult questions and asks you how prepared is the United States for crafting an emergency response to diffuse critical situations that potentially involve an act of terror?
To understand this better, let’s take a look at everything that went wrong on the day of the explosion and how we can rectify the situation.
How the Nashville bombing exposed inefficiencies in US communication networks
As mentioned earlier, the Nashville bombing took place near an AT&T facility. The facility happens to be a connecting point for regional and local internet, wireless, and video services.
When the bomb exploded, it caused a significant amount of damage to the facility. A fire broke out, and the building’s basement flooded with water. Local services were able to keep running due to backup battery power. However, the fire and water also damaged the backup power generators. Consequently, the backup battery was overwhelmed, too.
The bombing disrupted local services across Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky. The local 911 service stopped working. All flights at the Nashville International Airport halted. Hospitals, mobile users, and government offices were affected, and businesses could not use credit card devices to complete transactions.
The outages and how the explosion disrupted all communication services sounded a great deal of alarm, and rightly so. These systems’ resilience is essential for managing terror attacks, natural disasters, and other incidents that threaten human life. In particular, disruption to the 911 service is a cause of great concern.
As per one expert, federal authorities have invested a lot of resources in strengthening this service to guarantee it remains operational in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. It is worrying to know that a single facility’s damage rendered it inoperative.
Why was that the case, though?
According to Paul Rosenzweig from the Department of Homeland Security, the AT&T facility that fell victim to the attack was a switching station. You can consider it a node in the area’s communication network. Damaging the node upended the entire network too.
As per Douglas Schmidt, a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University, the damage proved to be a single point of failure. Unfortunately, that is how most communication systems work. A single design flaw is all it takes to send the whole thing crashing down.
It is not that simple, though. In reality, the vulnerability of our communication systems are linked to several issues. Let’s look at what these are.
Placing facilities in areas that are easy targets
One of the reasons why our communication infrastructure is so fragile is the placement of critical facilities in heavily populated areas. These make them easily accessible to everyone, from the average troublemaker to terrorists.
In most cases, placing these facilities in such areas is a matter of necessity. For instance, it can be easier to provide communication services when placed near the intended population. Secondly, public utilities are more readily available amid a densely populated area, making it is easier to run the facility.
Building new systems on top of older ones
Thanks to cost-cutting and a limited number of resources available, many new communication systems are built on top of old ones. Scrapping old equipment and getting rid of it means more work and delays in installing the new system.
Naturally, it is easier to leave the old equipment and add the new stuff over it. The desire for convenience and cost-efficiency here severely compromises the system’s integrity.
Clumping all systems into one facility
The AT&T facility housed multiple communication services under one roof. As a result, the entire system was able to crash.
It is unclear why so many critical systems were placed together. It could be attributed to the ease of adding a system in an existing facility instead of building a separate one. Constructing a new facility in such cases would be expensive and time-consuming.
Lessons from the Nashville bombing
We live in an uncertain world. Be it a novel virus or a facility getting bombed, it takes very little for everything we have built to go up in smoke (literally).
Given the implications of weak communication infrastructure, it is essential to build more resilient systems. How can we do that, though? Let’s find out.
Mitigating single points of failure
As Murphy’s law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Mitigating single points of failure follows a similar philosophy. A good way to do this is by building more redundancies within technical systems. How does this help? Let us elaborate.
If you allow enough time, all IT components eventually stop working. Hard drives get corrupted, and databases stop working. There is no question if the databases will go down again; it is just a matter of being prepared for the next emergency.
Building redundancies can help counter this phenomenon. For instance, instead of creating a single database, you make two of them. Furthermore, you place the second database at a different location. That way, even if one database crashes, the second one would still be operational.
We could have avoided the consequences of the Nashville bombing if more redundancies were in place.
Directing more resources for strengthening communications infrastructure
As mentioned earlier, many new communication systems are built over old ones. It is done for the sake of cost-efficiency. However, if we do a cost-benefit analysis here, it is clear that we are compromising long-term sustainability in pursuit of short-term outcomes.
To rectify this, the government must provide the concerned authorities with the resources they need to upgrade and build communication systems from scratch. Instead of choosing to do the easy thing, government agencies must do what is more beneficial in the long run.
The old systems must be scrapped before new ones are added. Moreover, we must build separate facilities for different communication systems. Doing so improves the chances of at least one or more communication systems working in the event of a disaster.
There is also a dire need for better check and balance when installing new systems. Special teams must be assigned to make sure that previous systems are removed before constructing anything new.
Building facilities in remote locations and adding more layers of security
Accessibility is intrinsically linked to vulnerability. If something is easy to access, it becomes easier to break it down, which is what happened to the AT&T facility.
A potential solution to this would be building more facilities in remote locations that are difficult to access. Of course, this would be a significant project as it would require utilities and human resources for running these facilities. There is also the matter of providing seamless services to far-off areas from a remote location.
On the other hand, pursuing this solution offers a slew of other advantages. For starters, it could improve our utility infrastructure and make it more efficient. Secondly, it opens up employment opportunities for individuals residing in remote areas. Finally, it serves as a long-term solution to our current plight. Once again, it is crucial to consider the bigger picture and the benefits attached to such long-term initiatives.
It is also essential that all IT and communication facilities are constructed and difficult to penetrate. For instance, the AT&T facility drew a great deal of criticism over how unprotected it was. Given the role it played in the area’s communication services, a thick wall should have concealed the facility.
Therefore, concerned authorities must fortify all facilities to ensure better protection from external attacks.
Wrapping it up
Who knows if it was by design or not, but the Nashville bombing has exposed our communications infrastructure cracks. 9/11 happened nearly two decades ago, and it is immensely worrying that our communication systems have made little progress since then.
As a society, we are becoming reliant on technology and social media. It is more important than ever to rebuild our communication and IT systems and withstand tragic incidents such as terror attacks and natural disasters. Doing so can save numerous lives and help us recover from any setbacks more quickly.