Report urges network redundancy

To guard against a sudden loss of communications capabilities, the federal government should enact policies to create greater redundancy in their communications systems, according to a new report from The Progress and Freedom Foundation.

"Many federal agency buildings and installation locations apparently do not currently have true telecommunications network redundancy installed in their buildings," wrote the report's author, Randolph May, a senior fellow and director of communications policy studies at the think tank, which focuses on the impact of technology on public policy.

The federal government has taken a lead on developing redundant systems for communications networks on which lives depend, including those used by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department, said Warren Suss, a telecommunications and information technology consultant and president of Suss Consulting Inc.

"For the government's most critical networks, they've been taking care of this problem for years," he said. "The challenge is applying it to the next level. If an FAA network goes down, the lives of the public can be at risk. We know if a defense network goes down, the lives of our troops are at risk. But there are other levels of risk that are important."

In many cases, vendors develop redundant systems not because the government specifies it but because it's the only way to achieve the demanded reliability, he said. When contracts demand "four nines," or 99.9999 percent uptime, vendors rely on redundancy.

However, new challenges are emerging, he noted. IP doesn't use the same dedicated point-to-point transmission that older voice and data networks were built on. And it's expensive to essential duplicate capabilities.

"The challenge is to identify that critical infrastructure and to make the cost tradeoffs you need to make," he said. "It can be extremely expensive."

In the report, May emphasizes the importance of protecting the communications infrastructure and lays out basic requirements for redundancy:

* Physically separate entry and exit points to a building, separated by a significant distance.

* Separate rights-of-way between the building and the routing center.

* Alternate services should use a physically separate switching or routing center.

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