Using 5G timing to protect critical infrastructure

1/24/2024 11:05:16 AM

Our economy, our national security, and our way of life are reliant on reliable, high-speed broadband communications. For example, the electricity grid, emergency communication systems, healthcare systems and a host of other critical infrastructure systems are reliant on broadband communications infrastructure in order to deliver critical services to government agencies, private sector organizations and individual consumers. The broadband communications infrastructure, in turn, is reliant on reliable timing signals provided by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to operate. As a result, a disruption of those GPS signals can result in cascading failures of these critical systems with potentially catastrophic results. To enhance the security and resilience of the broadband communications infrastructure - through sponsorship and funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) - the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI) and its research partners are working together to identify the timing signal requirements of the broadband communications infrastructure and to evaluate potential alternative, back-up timing signal sources in the event of a disruption to GPS signals.

There are multiple ways satellite signals could be disrupted, according to CIRI project consultant Scott Sotebeer, Ph.D. A powerful solar flare could potentially disrupt signals from satellites. Additionally, there are groups with malicious objectives that intentionally jam GPS signals in an attempt to compromise critical infrastructure. Either way, there could be catastrophic consequences resulting from such disruptions – whether naturally occurring or human caused.

CIRI researchers are actively evaluating the requirements for alternative, back-up timing sources for wireless carriers in order to mitigate the repercussions of potential interference. “Our objective is to identify resilient timing sources that meet the needs of the broadband suppliers and that are reliable and sustainable,” said Sotebeer.

This is not the first time researchers have explored alternative timing. A National Guard-developed project called Nationwide Integration of Timing Resiliency for Operations (NITRO), provides back-up timing signals at the state level and is currently active in eight states and one territory. CIRI is working with DHS and the National Guard Bureau to evaluate NITRO as a potential back-up timing solution for broadband and other critical infrastructure.

The CIRI research team is working towards the second phase of this project, which involves conducting a detailed analysis of the many factors that must be considered prior to selecting and deploying a nationwide back-up timing signal solution. Those include technical, physical, social, legal, and economic considerations. Upon completion, CIRI will deliver that detailed analysis to the DHS for further consideration and potential follow-on action.