IP switch could threaten FAA systems, says integrator

Telecom networks abstract

The systems integrator for one of the Federal Aviation Administration's key telecommunications systems has warned the Federal Communications Commission that plans to allow phone companies to gradually replace their old copper wire-based networks with Internet Protocol (IP) based technologies could endanger the nation's air traffic control system.

The concerns arose as the FCC moved to allow traditional wireline telecommunications carriers to explore, in regional technical trials, how they might overhaul their aging copper-based public-switched network technologies in favor of advanced and flexible IP-based networking gear.

The commission has responded to the concerns, which experts say could foreshadow problems for federal agencies' legacy communications systems as the IP transition moves ahead.

There is increasing agreement among regulators, public policy watchdogs and carriers that the switch needs to be made, but no firm time line has been established.

The FCC has taken a restrained approach. Rather than allowing carriers to switch networks wholesale, it voted in January to allow carriers to first test how such a shift would work in voluntary customer trials, and report back on their results.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said the trials are an integral step in replacing the increasingly obsolete copper-based landline telephone networks in favor of IP-based technology that will instill more flexibility, competition and economic vigor.

As the commission's IP transition efforts began late last year, the FAA's integrator asked it to require telecom carriers to avoid affecting critical aviation-sector systems. In meetings with the FCC, Harris Corp., the systems integrator for FAA's Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program, voiced concerns that telephone companies' regional IP trials might open up the National Airspace System and FTI to possible traffic outages, network hiccups and hackers.

FTI, according to Harris, provides the voice, data and video communications backbone for National Airspace System operations, securely connecting more than 4,300 national and international FAA and military facilities, managing more than 26,000 services, and supporting more than 50,000 users.

In a December filing, Harris said the FAA's National Airspace System would use traditional time division multiplex technology -- a foundation technology in wireline switched telephone networks -- possibly beyond 2020. "Simply put, forcing an IP transition trial onto one of the 3,300 serving wire centers that provide FAA with TDM services could harm safe air travel in the U.S.," the filing said.

The company warned of even deeper consequences of wireless network-based IP transition trials.

"In particular Denial of Service vulnerabilities are more prevalent with wireless and IP technologies providing additional opportunities for adversaries," Harris said. IP-based networks, the company said, allow attackers to use more efficient tactics than those used against traditional TDM-based services. The rogue wireless access points and frequency-jamming strategies that hackers have sometimes used to prey on wireless customers using public networks could be a threat for the FAA facilities in a new IP-based network.

"Eavesdropping on communication is much less difficult in both IP and wireless environments than in traditional wireline environments," said Harris.

The FCC responded to the FAA's concerns in its January order, saying that the experiments must allow TDM-based services and facilities that support critical government operations to continue uninterrupted until adequate replacements can be proven. It also said that telecom companies will have to prove their trials won't adversely affect national security, emergency preparedness and public-safety operations before being allowed to proceed.

The FAA noted that the Department of Defense and other federal agencies also have communications systems that rely heavily on legacy TDM-based networks and services.

And the switchover itself could pose certain problems, A shift toward IP-based networks brings Internet-era security concerns to sometimes mid-20th century telephone network technology with shaky results, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. Telephone numbers, for instance, once the secured and approved "keys to the kingdom" overseen by telephone companies in a public-switched copper network, are more easily hijacked in an IP network, he said. Hackers can manipulate the numbers relatively easily using techniques honed on the IP-based Internet to gain access to once-unassailable capabilities.

Feld pointed to the recent rash of "swatting" attacks on emergency 911 systems across the country in the last few years. In those attacks, a disgruntled hacker spoofs the telephone number of their victim over the Internet. They make IP-based phone calls to 911 systems to summon police SWAT teams to their victim's address. E911 systems typically link telephone numbers to the physical address of the phone's owner in wireline network databases. E911 systems have also been targeted in recent denial-of-service attacks by criminals.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 20, 2014

Also a pencil is less apt to run out of ink, compared to a pen. But advocating antiquated technology in lieu of the basic technology that everybody else, including the nice folks that provide for national defense, it a novel argument.

Tue, Feb 18, 2014 J. Salinas Texas

In your story covering the FAA and IP networks one would have to think that you are discussing service over the public Internet (IP). Why not use a closed netwrok or Private IP Network to stop the issues covered in your story? The FAA is a close system today, why would they not do the same going forward using an IP network?

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