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Thursday, April 07, 2022

Geopolitics, war & network diversity

This post was originally published on my LinkedIn Newsletter (here). Please sign up, and join the discussion thread there.


I'm increasingly finding myself drawn into discussions of #geopolitics and how it relates to #telecoms. This goes well beyond normal regulatory and policymaking involvement, as it means that rules - and opportunities and risks - are driven by much larger "big picture" strategic global trends, including the war in Ukraine.

As well as predicting strategic shifts, there are also lessons to be learned from events at a local, tactical level which have wider ramifications. Often, there will be trade-offs against normal telecoms preoccupations with revenue growth, theoretical "efficiency" of spectrum or network use, standardisation, competition and consumer welfare.

This is the first of what will probably be a regular set of articles on this broader theme. Here, I'm focusing on the Ukraine war, in the context some of the other geopolitical factors that I think are important. I'm specifically thinking about what they may mean for the types of network technology that are used, deployed and developed in future. This has implications for #5G, #6G, #satellite networks, #WiFi, #FTTX and much more, including the cloud/edge domains that support much of it. 


Ukraine and other geopolitical issues

This article especially drills into how the conflict in Ukraine has manifested in terms of telecoms and connectivity, and attempts to extrapolate to some early recommendations for policymakers more broadly.

I'm acutely consicous of the ongoing devastation and hideous war crimes being perpetrated there - I hope this isn't too early to try to analyse the narrow field of networking dispassionately, while conflict still rages.

For context, as well as Ukraine, other geopolitical issues impacting telecoms include:

  • US / West vs. China tensions, from trade wars to broader restrictions on the use of Huawei and other vendors' equipment, as well as sanctions on the export of components.
  • Impact of the pandemic on supply chains, plus the greater strategic and political importance of resilient telecom networks and devices in the past two years.
  • The politics of post-pandemic recovery, industrial strategy and stimulus funds. Does this go to broadband deployment, themes such as Open RAN, national networks, smart cities/infrastructure, satellite networks... or somewhere else?
  • Tensions within the US, and between US and Europe over the role and dominance of "Big Tech". Personal data, monopoly behaviour, censorship or regional sovereignty etc. This mostly doesn't touch networks today, but maybe cloud-native will draw attention.
  • Semiconductor supply-chain challenges and the geopolitical fragility of Taiwan's chip-fabrication sector.
  • How telecoms (and cloud) fits within Net Zero strategies, either as a consumer of energy, or as an enabler of green solutions.
  • Cyber threats from nation-state actors, criminal cartels and terrorist-linked groups - especially aimed at critical infrastructure and health/government/finance systems.

In other words, there's a lot going on. It will impact 5G, 6G development, vendor landscapes, cloud - and also other areas such as spectrum policy and Internet governance.

Network diversity as a focus

I've written and spoken before about the importance of "network diversity" and the dangers of technology monocultures, including over-reliance on particular standards (eg 5G) or particular business models (eg national MNOs) as some sort of universal platform. It is now clear that it is more important than ever.

The analogy I made with agriculture, or ecological biodiversity, is proving to be robust.

(Previous work includes this article from 2020 about private enterprise networks, or my 2017 presentation keynote on future disruptions, at Ofcom's spectrum conference. (The blue/yellow image of wheat fields, repeated here in this post, was chosen long before it became so resonant as the Ukrainian flag). I've also covered the shift towards Open RAN and telecoms supplier diversification – including a long report I submitted to the UK Government's Diversification Task Force last year - see this post and download the report).

A key takeout from my Open RAN report was that demand diversity is as important as creating more supply choices in a given product domain. Having many classes of network operator and owner – for instance national MNOs, enterprise private 4G/5G, towercos, industrial MNOs and neutral hosts – tends to pull through multiple options for supply in terms of both vendor diversity and technology diversity. They have different requirements, different investment criteria and different operational models.

In Ukraine, the "demands" for connectivity are arising from an even more broad set of sources, including improvised communications for refugees, drones and military personnel.

The war in Ukraine & telecoms

There have been numerous articles published which highlight the surprising resilience and importance of Ukrainian telecoms during the war so far. Bringing together and synthesising multiple sources, this has highlighted a number of important issues around network connectivity:

  • The original “survivability” concept of IP networks seems to have been demonstrated convincingly. Whether used for ISPs’ Internet access, or internal backhaul and transport for public fixed and mobile networks, the ability for diverse and resilient routing paths seems to have mostly been successful.
  • Public national mobile networks - mostly 4G in Ukraine's case - have proven essential in many ways, whether that has been for reporting information about enemy combatants' locations and activities, obtaining advice from government authorities, or dealing with the evacuation as refugees. (I'm not sure if subway stations used as shelters have underground cellular coverage, or if there is WiFi). Authorities also seem to have had success in getting citizens to self-censor, to avoid disclosing sensitive details to their enemies.
  • Reportedly the Russian forces haven't generally targeted telecoms infrastructure on a widescale basis. This was partly because they have been using commerical mobile networks themselves. However, because roaming was disabled, Russian military use of their encrypted handsets and SIMs on public 3G/4G networks seems to have failed. Two articles here and here give good insight, and also suggests there may be network surveillance backdoors which Russia may have exploited. There have also been reports of stingrays ("fake" base stations used for interception of calls / identity) being deployed. It also appears that some towns and cities - notably the destroyed city of Mariupol - have been mostly knocked offline, partly because the electrical grid was attacked first.
  • Ukraine’s competitive telecoms market has probably helped its resilience. There is a highly fragmented fixed ISP landscape, with very inexpensive connections. There are over a dozen public peering-points across the country. There are three main MNOs, with many users having SIMs from 2+ operators. (This is a good overview article - https://ukraineworld.org/articles/ukraine-explained/key-facts-about-ukraines-telecom-industry). It seems they have enabled some form of national roaming to allow subscribers to attach to each others' networks.
  • WiFi hotspots (likely with mobile backhaul) have been used by NGOs evacuating refugees by buses.
  • Although it is still only being used at a small scale, the LEO satellite terminals from SpaceX’s StarLink seem to be an important contributor to connectivity – not least as a backup option. Realistically, satellite isn’t appropriate for millions of individual homes – and especially not personal vehicles and smartphones – but is an important part of the overall network-diversity landscape. Various commentators have suggested it is useful as a backup for critical infrastructure connectivity, as well as for mobile units such as special forces.
  • Another satellite broadband provider, Viasat, apparently suffered a cyberattack at the start of the war (link here), which knocked various modem users offline (or even "bricked" the devies), reportedly including Ukrainian government organisations. Investigations haven't officially named Russia, but a coincidence seems improbable. This attack also impacted users outside Ukraine.
  • Various peer-to-peer apps using Bluetooth or WiFi allow direct connections between phones, even if wide area connections are down (see link)
  • There have been some concerning reports about the impact of GPS jammers on the operation of cellular networks, which may use it as a source of “timing synchronisation” to operate properly, especially for TDD radio bands. While this has long been a risk for individual cell-sites from low-power transmitters, the use of deliberate electronic warfare tools could potentially point to broader vulnerabilities in future.
  • There has been wide use of commercial drones like the DJI Mavic-3 for surveillance (video and thermal imaging), or modified to deliver improvised weaponry. These use WiFi to connect to controllers on the ground, as well as a proprietary video transmission protocols (called O3+) which apparently has range of up to 15km using unlicensed spectrum. Some of the "Aerorozvidka" units reportedly then use StarLink terminals to connect back to command sites to coordinate artillery attacks (link).

In short, it seems that Ukraine has been well served by having lots of connectivity options - probably including some additional military systems that aren't widely discussed. It has benefited from multiple fixed, cellular and satellite networks, with potential for interconnect, plus inventive "quick fixes" after failures and collaboration between providers. It is exploiting licensed and unlicensed spectrum, with cellular, Wi-Fi and other technologies.

In other words, network diversity is working properly. There appears to be no single point of failure, despite deliberate attacks by invading forces and hackers. Connectivity is far from perfect, but it has held up remarkably well. Perhaps the full range of electronic warfare options hasn't been used - but given the geographical size of Ukraine and the inability of Russia forces to maintain supply-lines to distant units, that is also unsurprising.

Another set of issues that I haven't really examined are around connectivity within sanctions-hit Russia. Maybe it will have to develop more local network equipment manufacturers - if they can get the necessary silicon and other components. It probably will not wish to over-rely on Huawei & ZTE any more than some Western countries have been happy with Nokia and Ericsson as primary options. More problematic may be fixed-Internet routers, servers, WiFi APs and other Western-dominated products. I can't say I'm sympathetic, and I certainly don't want to offer suggestions. Let's see what happens.

Recommendations for policymakers, industry bodies and regulators

So what are the implications of all this? Hopefully, few other countries face a similar invasion by a large and hostile army. But preparedness is wise, especially for countries with unfriendly neighbours and territorial disputes. And even for everywhere else, the risks of cyberattacks, terrorism, natural disasters - or even just software bugs or human error - are still significant.

I should stress that I'm not a cybersecurity or critical infrastructure specialist. But I can read across from other trends I'm seeing in telecoms, and in particular I'm doing a lot of work on "path dependency" where small, innocent-seeming actions end up having long-term strategic impacts and can lock-in technology trajectories.

My initial set of considerations and recommendations:

  • As a general principle, divergence in technology should be considered at least as positively than convergence. It maintains optionality, fosters innovation and reduces single-point-of-failure risks.
  • National networks and telcos (fixed and mobile) are essential - but cannot do everything. They also need to cooperate during emergencies - a spirit of collaboration which seems to have worked well during the pandemic in many countries.
  • Normal ideas about cyber-resilience and security may not extend to the impact of full-scale military electronic warfare units, as well as more "typical" online hacking and malware attacks.
  • Having separate "air-gapped" networks available makes sense not just for critical communications (military, utilities etc) but for more general use. It isn't inefficient - it's insurance. There may be implications here for network-sharing in some instances.
  • Thought needs to be given to emergency fallbacks and improvised work-arounds, for instance in the event of mass power outages or sabotage. This is particularly important for software/cloud-based networks, which may be less "fixable" in the field. Can a 5G network be "bodged"? (that's "MacGyvred" to my US friends)? As a sidenote - how have electric vehicles fared in Ukraine?
  • Unlicensed spectrum and "permissionless communications" is hugely important during emergency situations. Yes, it doesn't have control or lawful intercept. But that's entirely acceptable in extreme circumstances.
  • Linkages between technologies, access networks and control/identity planes should generally be via gateways that can be closed, controlled or removed if necessary. If one is attacked, the rest should be firewalled off from it. For the same reason "seamless" should be a red-flag word for cross-tech / cross-network roaming. Seams are important. They offer control and the ability to partition if necessary. "Frictionless" is OK, as long as friction can be re-imposed if needed.
  • Governments should be extremely cautious of telcos extending 3GPP control mechanisms – especially the core network and slicing – to fixed broadband infrastructure. Fixed broadband is absolutely critical, and complex software dependencies may trade off fine-grained control vs. resilience - and offer additional threat surfaces.
  • Democratising and improving satellite communications looks like an ever more wise move, for all sorts of reasons. It's not a panacea, but it's certainly "air-gapped" as above. 3GPP-based "non-terrestrial" networks, eg based on drones or balloons, also has potential - but will ideally be able to work independently of terrestrial networks if needed.
  • I haven't heard much about LPWAN and LoRa-type networks, but I can imagine that being useful in emergency situations too.
  • Sanctions, trade wars and supply-chain issues are highly unpredictable in terms of intended and unintended consequences. Technology diversity helps mitigate this, alongside supplier diversity in any one network domain.
  • Spectrum policy should enable enough scale economies to ensure good supply of products (and viability of providers), but not *so* much scale that any one option drives out alternatives.
  • The role and impact of international bodies like ITU, GSMA and 3GPP needs careful scrutiny. We are likely to see them become even more political in future. If necessary, there may have to be separate "non-authoritarian" and "authoritarian" versions of some standards (and spectrum policies). De-coupling and de-layering technologies' interdependency - especially radio and core networks - could isolate "disagreements" in certain layers, without undermining the whole international collaboration.
  • There should be a rudimentary basic minimum level of connectivity that uses "old" products and standards. Maybe we need to keep a small slice of 900MHz spectrum alive for generator-powered GSM cells and a box of cheap phones in bunkers - essentially a future variant of Ham Radio.

So to wrap up, I'm ever more convinced that Network Diversity is essential. Not only does it foster innovation, and limit oligopoly risk, but it also enables more options in tragic circumstances. We should also consider the potential risks of too much sophistication and pursuit of effiency and performance at all costs. What happens when things break (or get deliberately broken)?

In the meantime, I'm hoping for a quick resolution to this awful war. Slava Ukraini!

Sidenote: I am currently researching the areas of “technology lock-in” and “path dependence”. In particular, I have been investigating the various mechanisms by which lock-in occurs and strategies for spotting its incipience, or breaking out of it. Please get in touch with me, if this is an area of interest for you.

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