Nearly two years ago, a serious malfunction in the core infrastructure of one of Israel's leading cellular providers left hundreds of thousands of subscribers without connection. The malfunction quickly evolved into a situation that was subsequently defined as a "nation-wide crisis." This incident heightened the awareness of Israeli emergency authorities regarding the need to ensure communication continuity throughout an emergency scenario (Emergency communication will be one of the main issues discussed at the IsraelDefense Emergency Solutions Conference on April 22, 2013 at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel).
Sudden and serious damage to Israel's main communication networks could occur in an earthquake scenario, for example, but also as a result of a premeditated attack– such as a lethal missile or cyber attack.
Numerous facilities and organizations in Israel remain unprepared for such scenarios and do not conform to the applicable international standards. Many security firms, as well as communication and Internet companies, are currently hard at work developing solutions that would enable the continued, uninterrupted operation of the communication layouts during an emergency. The principles guiding these initiatives are system survivability and prompt information retrieval/reconstruction and recovery, when required.
"This issue is being discussed all the time, with an emphasis on earthquakes, as they pose a serious threat to infrastructure systems. When you are prepared for such a total threat, you will be able to provide a solution to defense threats as well," says Brig. Gen. (Res.) Ze'ev Zuk-Ram, who presently serves as Deputy Chairman of the National Security Council. In his previous capacity, Zuk-Ram established the National Emergency Authority and headed it until about eighteen months ago.
"We analyzed the national communication core and reached conclusions as to what we need operating under any circumstances in extreme situations, so as to maintain functional continuity – in terms of the economy, civilian services and other aspects. The required communication must rely on the cellular communication providers, the Israeli telecomm company Bezeq and the Internet infrastructure systems. Even the IDF relies on civilian infrastructure systems, in part. We will need various backups in terms of the C3 layouts – some of which are already available. Among other things, we provide guidance to banks, various installations and plants as to where they should place their server farms in the event that steep-trajectory munitions should explode nearby or score a direct hit, or in the event of a severe earthquake, so that they do not sustain serious damage and manage to absorb the impact without becoming unserviceable."
What if a lethal earthquake severely damages the infrastructure systems?
"In such a case, the backups will be provided by the military wireless system, which is mobile and may be deployed. It will not be a perfect solution, but sometimes will be required for the recovery process. However, the process in which we are currently engaged examines how this may be accomplished in the quickest way possible."
Zuk-Ram also mentions "roaming,” which refers to managing needs and demands among the various companies according to the national scale of priorities.
"When the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) experiences a malfunction and a whole area is cut off, they have a predetermined scale of priorities and know who to supply electrical power to initially – hospitals, for example. We want to establish a similar mechanism with the cellular providers. During Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012), we experienced missile hits as well as a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, and then we observed an unusually excessive workload on the cellular communication cells, which almost led to a temporary collapse. The systems are designed for a certain level of services over a continuous period of time. For example – in a given local cell, four out of ten subscribers are communicating at any given moment, but when an incident occurs and everyone goes on the air at the same time, the system is unable to support it."
According to Zuk-Ram, "At the moment, we can say that as far as security systems are concerned, we have reached an order of magnitude of 80% readiness for emergency communication, and have reached approximately 40% to 50% readiness with the civilian systems. We have set a goal for 2013 to substantially enhance everything associated with civilian readiness in the field of communication."
One of the options in the event of communication infrastructure collapse is the use of satellites. According to Ami Schneider, Vice President of Mobile Satellite Communication at Gilat SatCom, "This is the most appropriate infrastructure for an emergency and as backup for existing systems. For example, in the event of congestion, it is possible to utilize mobile phones on the Iridium network or heavier systems such as VSATs. These are mobile systems deployed on the ground, connected directly to the satellite and enabling video conferences, Internet communication and voice communication – even in enclosed or underground facilities. These networks are fast and readily available."
A few weeks ago, Gilat SatCom has won the Ministry of Finance Accountant General's tender for the supply of satellite-based mobile and stationary communication services to all of Israel's government ministries and security agencies. The Israel Police is also engaged in the process of acquiring a satellite communication network, so that in the event of a total collapse of the police communication network, at least a few dozen satellite phones may still be in use.
"The intention is to establish an infrastructure system that will communicate with the satellite and enable the operation of telephone communication, video and data-link communication. The communication system is our most important system, and this process is a part of the demand for enhancing our capabilities in preparation for future challenges," said an Israel Police source recently. Bezeq, Israel's terrestrial telecommunication company, is currently working on a new emergency communication solution. About two months ago, Bezeq launched a mobile communication unit capable of providing telecommunication and Internet services to a whole town in the case of an emergency – first and foremost to such vital services as the police, ambulance service, fire fighters, municipalities, hospitals and banks. This solution consists of a state-of-the-art backup array – the first of its kind to be employed in Israel. Project cost is estimated at about $2 million, and it can constitute a backup solution for approximately 100 communication centers throughout the country using a quick "plug & play" connection.
The system can provide an effective solution to a complete or partial shutdown of the communication facility being supported in the event of fire, a direct hit by a missile attack, a terrorist attack and so forth. According to the arrangement, in the event of a communication facility shutdown, the mobile communication unit will provide communication backup for roughly 60,000 subscriber lines in the town being supported (this can vary from one town to another) and for about 1,000 business account lines.
"In every town, we have a communication facility through which we provide the telecommunication and Internet services to that area. These facilities are survivable and include backed-up systems," says Itzik Cohen, head of the Network Engineering Section at Bezeq's Technologies & Network Division. "In the event of a serious incident where the installation has sustained massive damage, the mobile communication unit can provide services to any town, regardless of the communication facility that has been hit. If, for example, I need to install bank servers in this container – they can be accommodated, too. Any vital communication equipment may be installed in this container.
"The mobile unit is fitted with the most advanced equipment available – so that services may be restored within less than 24 hours. The intention is to divert the transmissions to a facility that has reserve infrastructure systems available. We conform to the policy guidelines of the National Emergency Authority and participate in all of the emergency exercises. Whatever the emergency authorities tell us to do – we will comply."
Six months ago, following the Israeli State Comptroller & Ombudsman's report on the Carmel fire disaster, the Israeli government decided to establish a nationwide emergency communication network. The radio network under consideration, referred to as the "Nationwide Radio," will serve multiple organizations in accordance with U.S. standard APCO-25 (“Project 25”), and all of the emergency services will be connected to it. Some professional circles believe that the U.S. standard is somewhat outdated and that the system should be based on the European standard LTE (4G).
Meanwhile, a committee headed by Ilan Davidi, Head of the Command & Operations Division at the National Emergency Authority, is responsible for managing the project. He is tasked with examining ways to improve the systems, recommending the inclusion of additional organizations and agencies in the national communication network, and ensuring that the network is operational by late 2016. According to the plan, the system will be assimilated initially in the emergency agencies and services, then at the ports, and finally at the local municipalities.
The Nationwide Radio system is expected to be based on two communication networks that are already in operation: the "Nitzan" network of the Israel Police, and the "Barak Katom" network of the IDF Home Front Command. Both networks are based on infrastructure provided by Motorola Solutions Israel. The police network will include the fire departments and the Ministry of the Environment; the IDF's "Barak Katom" network will include the ambulance service. The networks should be interconnected through a Motorola ISSI bridge interface. Some local municipalities decided to 'pick up the gauntlet' – at least as far as communication infrastructure for public shelters is concerned. The Municipality of Kfar Saba, for example, has installed a telephone line, infrastructure for receiving HDTV broadcasts, an Internet connection and an external radio antenna in all 66 public shelters throughout the city – to be used in the event of a power failure.
Brig. Gen (Res.) Avraham Ben-David, former Chief of Staff for the IDF Home Front Command, now serving as the Vice President of Motorola Israel overseeing the Israeli market, says that an increasing number of organizations and major agencies are coming to understand the importance of separate internal communication systems that would be able to function in emergency and high-congestion situations.
"Today, when you attend a football match or a mass demonstration, for example, you will find it difficult to communicate using your mobile phone, as the local sites were designed for a given workload. This must not happen in an emergency. Around the world, it is customary for government and public organizations, critical systems and other elements to have their own communication systems that are not dependent on civilian communication providers. In this way, they can manage their workloads and priorities on their own, unlike civilian and commercial organizations. In Israel, this approach is currently evolving, based on an understanding of Israel's defense and security needs. Among other things, over the last year or two, such private networks were deployed at the Israel Airports Authority, at the port of Ashdod, and elsewhere.
"In the past, owing to the differences in technologies and frequencies, the various organizations had to exchange transceivers so that they may be able to communicate with one another when required. Today, as technology has become more advanced and as it is usually standardized, this has become unnecessary. Bridges and transceiver exchanges are no longer necessary, and operational effectiveness has improved substantially."
In conclusion, Ben-David points to some of the latest innovations: in the context of preparing for an emergency, a well-equipped software package now enables users to convert their mobile phones into 'walkie-talkies' – two-way radio transceivers that may be used directly as soon as the communication network has collapsed.