There was a major attack launched against long-haul fiber networks outside of Paris, France on April 27 of this year. It appears that there was a coordinated attack by vandals to simultaneously cut three long-haul fiber routes. Fibers were cut with what seemed like a circular saw, and sections of fiber were removed to make it hard to make repairs. These were backbone fibers that were shared by multiple ISPs. A few ISPs lost service, and broadband access for almost everybody in Paris was slowed for a while.
The cuts were made at night, and in all three cases, the fiber was buried. There have been no arrests made, and no group ever claimed responsibility for the fiber cuts. But it’s obvious that whoever did this knew of the locations and purpose of the fibers.
There has been an uptick in attacks against communications infrastructure in France. In December 2021 the new outlet Reporterre documented more than 140 attacks in France against 5G equipment and related infrastructure during the year. This includes cutting cables, setting fire to cell towers, and even attacking telecom technicians. Attacks have decreased since the peak in 2020
The last major well-known attack on broadband infrastructure in the U.S. came on Christmas 2020 when a man blew up an RV parked outside of an AT&T switching center in Nashville. This seems to have been a case of mental illness, and police have never determined any motive or reason that AT&T was the target. The Department of Homeland Security issued an alert in the U.S. in May 2020 warning against likely attacks against cellular towers, related to 5G. There have been similar attacks in the UK and across Europe.
Regulators in the U.S. don’t widely publicize outages caused by vandalism, probably to not encourage copycats. In Docket FCC 21-99, the proposed rulemaking to improve network resiliency, the FCC noted the frequency of vandalism against U.S. networks. Carriers have always been required to disclose what the FCC defines as major outages, and the FCC noted that the year with the most attacks was 2016, with 1,079 reported acts of outages caused by vandalism. These attacks come in many forms, including gunshots, fires, and cable cuts.
ISPs are at a loss on how to protect infrastructure any better than it’s already protected. Most vital middle-mile fiber routes are buried, with the location of the routes not highly publicized. We put security fences and security cameras at cell tower sites and communication huts and buildings. But much of our vital infrastructure is located in remote locations – often on purpose. Nobody wants cellular towers or communication huts in residential neighborhoods, so carriers find out-of-the-way places to hide the infrastructure.
This is a warning for anybody building a new network to pay attention to physical security. In driving around, I see a lot of communication huts and cabinets sitting alongside the highway in plain sight. There are a few basics of physical security that every carrier should bake into the plans for a new network.
First, protect the perimeter around facilities. Put buildings and devices behind fences. Plant shrubs to keep infrastructure out of sight. Make it hard to park too near your facilities. And monitor your sites. Modern high definition or 4K cameras can capture the details needed to identify intruders. Cameras are now inexpensive and easy to connect where there is fiber. Connecting cameras to motion detectors can trigger recordings or security alerts when somebody is close to a facility. Consider a camera that includes license plate recognition software.