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back to article Whitehall plans 'White Noise' phone network collapse

The government will simulate a shutdown of the national phone network next week in an exercise involving hundreds of government and industry players. The exercise - codenamed "White Noise" - is designed to simulate a catastrophic nationwide communications failure, will take place over Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 November. It …

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Grenade

If I didn't know better

If I didn't know better, I'd say HMG had been watching the rollout of BT's much overhyped much delayed 21CN to 'brave' ISPs like AAISP, Entanet, IDnet, Plusnet, and other brave pioneers, and that HMG are therefore scared shotless of the chaos that might ensue if 21CN voice turns out to be as badly behaved as 21CN broadband.

aaisp.blogspot.com and revk.www.me.uk are worth a read.

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Silver badge

More likely

> Such a scenario could be caused by a cyber or physical attack, or a natural disaster.

While those might be "acceptable"or "no blame" causes for such a large failure, if anything like this came to pass in the real world, my money would be on stupidity as the cause. Whether that was on the part of an individual putting a digger through lots of cables at once (or having them all inthe same trench), someone not designing the network properly: for resilience, security maintainability , or a bureaucrat somewhere choosing not to spend money on upgrades or fixes, is impossible to say.

However, any of these possibilities is much, much more likely than malice.

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Big Brother

Testing the water ...

To see how fast they can pull the plugs in the event of civil unrest.

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no impact on those not involved in the exercise

bets?

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Silver badge

Mobile overload?

It's good they they do some contingency planning. But will they also simulate the resulting overload and failure of the mobile network? (as happens after every major incident) - then it really is back to carrier pigeons (or the Royal Mail - oops, no, of course, they'll have sold that off to Virgin by then and a postal service will only be available within the M25)

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FAIL

Waste of time!!

"Data and mobile communications will remain intact throughout the exercise"

Data as in email, as in internet, as in the national phone network that's failing?!?!?!

OMG I can't use the phone, ahh, but I can email, sorted! Disaster avoided.

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Happy

@ Tim Bergel

I wont take your bet thanks, I mean what could possibly go wrong?

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Bronze badge
Happy

White Noise?

Yay! Here come the fleas...

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data is voice?

in the VoIP world we live in.

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Thumb Down

My money is on

A terrorist attack on the ground and/or comms network, and everyone will assume it's just an exercise until it's too late. Confusion all round. Why on earth are these things announced to the public?

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To quote Groucho Marx:

Outside of the improvement, no one will notice the difference.

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Anonymous Coward

no impact on those not involved in the exercise

Would suggest that Whitehall is largely redundant.

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Anonymous Coward

@HannsG

"Data as in email, as in internet, as in the national phone network that's failing?!?!?!"

You know that they're not the same network right? The only time those two coincide is when people use dial-up Internet access...

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Gold badge

Anyone remeber the fire at the BT Manchester Internet exchange?

The one that clobbered about 1/2 the UK's overseas internet traffic.

Wonder if BT bothered to do anything about that?

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Stop

So basically..

A small group of government officials and volunteers will unplug their landlines for a day? But they can still use mobiles?

Wtf?

That's like trying to simulate a hurricane using a desk fan. And you can be sure the (predetermined) conclusion will be that they need more tax money to build super-duper-phone-network-2.0 (for themselves)

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Megaphone

In the event of the goverment loosing communications

We can go on living our lives without them interfering all the time.

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Anonymous Coward

Government coordinated?

"Officials will monitor the government's ability to respond in a coordinated way"

Surely they should learn the coordination bit first.

So now all the "terrorists" know that Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 November are the best times to do the real damage.

PS- we are all terrorists in the eyes of the plod.

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Flame

@AC13:51 "they're not on the same network"

"You know that they're not the same network right? The only time those two coincide is when people use dial-up Internet access..."

How much do you know about BT's networks (voice and data) in recent years?

BT's much overhyped much delayed 21CN implements a single national network backbone. Voice and data go over the same equipment and the same fibres thereby "improving efficiency" (in the same way that putting all your eggs in one basket improves efficiency). Smarter corporates have been doing it this way for years but doing it on a national basis understandably takes longer. Doing it the way BT are doing it? Oh dear.

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Rob
Bronze badge
WTF?

Another excuse

For central gov to sit around doing nothing, "lets pick a day to not bother with phone calls" not that they probably take much notice of them anyway.

Lazy Dosstards is what they are.

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Gold badge

Cable robbers

There was a case of phone cable being stolen recently, so I think that the phone network has more to fear from criminals than terrorists.

Yet another reason why we need more fibre and less copper. You can't really sell glass fibre for scrap.

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Silver badge

@AC 13:47

Actually, now the Lisbon constitutional-in-all-but-name treaty has been signed, Whitehall *is* redundant. Whilst I oppose the EU in principle I have to say, if we're stuck in it, at least lets acknowledge the fact and get rid of the useless show-parliament. No more Brown, no more Cameron, no more expenses fiddling. Well... none *here* at any rate.

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Grenade

Well that's the day then

So that will be the day that johnny terrorist finally blows the shit out of hanger lane tube station.

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Alert

"...a catastrophic nationwide communications failure..."

...or Monday-thru-Sunday, as Entanet customers call it.

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fibre

@Giles Jones "Yet another reason why we need more fibre and less copper. You can't really sell glass fibre for scrap."

That doesn't seem to stop the usual suspects from digging it up - someone I know runs the IT at a chemical plant and they had all their fibre dug up a while back, by, how shall I put it, the residents of a local unauthorised encampment.

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@Giles Jones

First they steal the cable, /then/ they see if there's copper inside. Fibre is safe from neither backhoes nor thieves.

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White Noise?

Does that mean they will play the Parliament Channel down the wires?

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Carrier Pidgeon

Faster to transfer 4 gig anyway :D

i could prolly walk it on my shitty connection !!

DSL outage my ping goes up by 2 :/

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Headmaster

White noise indeed

"We'd be reduced to carrier pigeons and semaphore if we didn't have some form of communications"

Carrier pigeons and semaphore ARE forms of communication *sigh* Is there some village that has a Royal crest on its signpost: "Suppliers of spokespeople to Her Majesty's Government"? Thickythixton-by-the-Marsh perhaps?

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FAIL

Proper excercise

Cut off all data, cell and phone access. Deploy military transceiver cars or think of a quick way to convert TV/radio transceiver cars for the purpose. Make sure that anything you are deploying was locked in a nuclear bunker (or at least in big Faraday's cage to stop the EMP destroying it from afar). Use your transceiver cars to build a resilient, distributed network with strong encryption and authentication of endpoints. Give the banks and stock exchange access to a VPN inside your network, so that the communications attack won't destroy core financial systems and hence economy. Do it within 24 hours. This is an excercise that would really increase security and show any attackers out there that Britain won't be taken down easily.

"Switching off the phones" like this is just a press gig and waste of money.

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Megaphone

Phones down? GLK london calling....

Remember that story about the Home Hub networks and amateur radio? Guess what sort of people can still talk over the country, and indeed internationally even when all the phones go down for whatever reason.... Take me about ten minutes to set up a worldwide capable station from scratch capabale of phone, data, and TV transmission.

Megaphone for like obvious reasons

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Carrier Pidgeons and semaphore?

"'We'd be reduced to carrier pigeons and semaphore if we didn't have some form of communications,' Smith explained", really? So what about, y'know, radio?

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Gold badge
WTF?

The only white noise is in their brains

"White Noise will simulate a total national collapse of the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network. [...] Data and mobile communications will remain intact throughout the exercise."

So that's *all* ("total collapse") the landlines knocked out *except* for the the ones carrying ADSL traffic and not the mobile networks.

"Such a scenario could be caused by a cyber or physical attack, or a natural disaster."

I'd love to know how. Cyber attacks clearly couldn't, since the technology being knocked out is precisely the opposite of what a cyber attacker has access to. Physical attacks would need to strike thousands of sites (the exchanges, perhaps?) across the country, presumably using IT-qualified commandos to avoid disabling those ADSL circuits, but inexplicably would not deploy that firepower against softer targets.

So we're guarding against an act of war by a major foreign power with a sense of humour. Good to know these guys aren't wasting public money, eh?

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Coat

GPO

Bring back the manual switchboards and Strowger switches I say!

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@Nigel Callaghan

The mobile network doesn't fail during a major incident, access to it is restricted by the networks. Not such a bad an idea, really. For all the people who are trying to find out if their loved ones are safe, it's terribly distressing, but the people with approved numbers generally *really* need their phone calls to get through.

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Linux

Priceless!

In event of insurrection TheRegister will be the first to be blocked.

Why? Because of the quality of all the above commentards.

We're doomed, I tell you we're doomed! Ooops!

Also I welcome our 21CN Huwei overlords, I really really like you guys and I have not never ever dissed your wonderful technology..........</bleat>

Penguin icon 'cos I'm being relocated to Antarctica.

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FAIL

"Physical attacks ... thousands of sites"

"Physical attacks would need to strike thousands of sites (the exchanges, perhaps?)"

Not any more.

Exchanges aren't exchanges the way they used to be. Once BT's much overhyped much delayed 21CN rollout is complete, the 5000+ largely-independent multiply-interconnected exchanges of a few years ago simply become connection centres where your phone line connects to a "Multi Service Access Node" which provides both phone and DSL service on the same wires on the same box (unless you get your broadband via LLU, let's ignore that). The "exchange" (as was) connects upstream to one other node, a "regional switching centre" (name tbc) or some similar concept; any given exchange has no direct connections (voice or data) to any other exchange. Take out one of these switching centres (which are not necessarily architected resiliently, see [1]) and you potentially take out the voice and DSL broadband connections for a whole region.

Gross oversimplification obviously but I don't have all day and nor do you.

All eggs, one basket. No worthwhile corporate network would be designed this way, but then corporate IT departments often have more clue (managerially and technically) than overpriced underregulated monopoly telco BT show today.

http://aaisp.blogspot.com/2009/09/info-bt-single-box-design-still.html

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Flame

"The mobile network doesn't fail during a major incident"

The whole concept of this exercise being based on the loss of voice services whilst data services continue as normal is utterly farcical (no surprise there then). OK the core government data networks and whatnot hopefully don't run over the vanilla DSL network and some of them hopefully even run over non-BT networks, but that aside...

"The mobile network doesn't fail during a major incident"

Do you know what a lot of the smaller cells use for their connectivity back to the cellco core network these days?

I'll give you a hint: it's not microwave like it used to be in the early days.

Time's up, and the answer is: DSL, over telephone lines.

Now, OK, typically we're only talking smaller fill-in cells, which are typically only added to provide extra capacity or extra coverage... there will hopefully be microwave-linked cells surviving even when the DSL-linked cells go dead.

Many of those DSL lines will be over BT DSL services, ie BT 21CN DSL needs to work or the cells are dead. Yes that again. Got the message yet?

You might also want to read the September 2006 London Regional Resilience Forum report [1] into the lessons from the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. Re the (non?)usefulness of the ACCOLC selective access mechanism it says e.g.

"The ACCOLC system was invoked for a short time in a one kilometre radius of Aldgate. It subsequently became evident that the ACCOLC system was not currently accessible by all Cat 1 and 2 responders that may have a critical need for it. In any event, the use of ACCOLC procedures could themselves be counterproductive because the public relies heavily on mobile telephones as their primary means of communication and would want to use them in a crisis to reassure family and friends."

Hopefully more Cat 1 and Cat 2 responders now have access. Would you want to count on it?

[0] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/5140358.stm

[1] http://www.londonprepared.gov.uk/downloads/lookingbackmovingforward.pdf

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Disater?

Some would say that the systems are already in a state of "catastrophic nationwide communications failure" without any simulation!

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Thumb Up

@DI_Wyman

"Bring back the manual switchboards and Strowger switches I say!"

Frankly there is nothing wrong with this idea. Its bomb (and fool)-proof.

Not that there will be many here who know what they are.

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here is a oppinion from someboday in the field

@Ken Hagan: a cyber attack against the telephone networks is in fact very doable and has happend at least on a smaller scale against some telephone companies in the past. VOIP technology is highly vulnerable to classic DDOS from botnets, while mobile and traditional phone networks are vulnerable to call congestion. Think of VOIP calls initiated from compromised computers, of calls done from thousands of malware infected smart phones, etc. How do you think the emergency lines would cope with just a few hundred such phones calling in every few seconds?

Imho it's good that they simulate it now, where there is no real emergency.

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RW
Linux

@ Tim Bergel

My sentiments, precisely. Whitehall is a known hotbed of incompetence and muppetry, so much so that I won't be surprised if dialup communications worldwide are disrupted.

Think of Chernobyl...

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Black Helicopters

Switching OFF is easy

But, OMG, we can't figure out how to turn the bl**dy gear back ON!

Aaaarghhhhhh!

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Pint

O2

O2 shouldn't have any problem taking down their data network...

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