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Vulnerability of America’s communications infrastructure: Aging is only part of the problem

July 5, 2017

While there has been much discussion on problems related to aging infrastructure, it’s just one of the challenges facing U.S. communications networks.

Paul Horgan

Head of U.S. Commercial Insurance

Paul Horgan is the Head of U.S. Commercial Insurance for Zurich North America and is responsible for... About this expert

communications network

America’s infrastructure is a complex system of interrelated sectors — transportation, energy, water and communications. While a lot has been written lately about concerns related to aging infrastructure, the challenges to America’s communications networks go beyond the issue of aging.

The communications sector is diverse, running the gamut from standard voice service to internet-linked control systems. Of all critical infrastructure, this sector may be the most vulnerable. From the impact of extreme weather to the increasing risk of cyber attack, this complex system runs the risk of significant disruption. This is extremely concerning, since communications is an integral component of the U.S. economy, underlying the operations of business, public safety and government.

The events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated the interrelationship – and vulnerability – of America’s infrastructure. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers led to significant water main breaks in the immediate area. In the aftermath, rail tunnels, a subway station and the vault containing all the cables for one of the largest telecommunications nodes in the world were flooded. That node was the densest knot of cables and switches anywhere in the world. The attack knocked out 300,000 voice access lines and 4.5 million data circuits and left ten cellular towers inactive, depriving 14,000 businesses and 20,000 residential customers of service.1

Due to this outage, many businesses, including the New York Stock Exchange, did not get back to business for days. This disruption caused significant financial losses and raised concerns regarding corporate and national security.

With increasing technological advancement, security concerns for both government and the private sector have grown. Today, communications systems are more integrated and connected with other critical infrastructure. As the threat of cyber attacks becomes more frequent, not only can the communications network be damaged, but internet-linked systems such as water treatment facilities, electrical systems and air traffic control networks may be compromised. Because our communications systems have become more technologically advanced and interrelated to other systems, this has increased vulnerability.

Maintaining critical communications infrastructure has been recognized as a national security issue. While the communications industry invests heavily in its infrastructure, America’s dependence on technology and web-based communications increases the need to protect that infrastructure and the many control systems that it helps run. Cyber security and evolving cyber threats are now a critical issue for the telecommunications industry.

Today’s information security challenges demand that telecommunications operators stay on top of these threats. It is no longer simply natural disasters that may affect our communications network. The risks are diverse, challenging and certainly not limited to aging infrastructure.

To find out more about problems facing America’s infrastructure, go to

1 Argenti, Paul A. “Crisis Communication: Lessons from 9/11.” Harvard Business Review. December 2002.