Towards a Secure Public Network

Sept. 11 changed everything - for telcos no less than anyone else. Level 3 Communications CEO and outgoing NRIC head James Crowe talks to Paul Coe Clark III about the security challenges facing the public network.

The Network Reliability and Interoperability Council, the cross-industry group that makes best-practices recommendations on reliability, on Sept. 11 inherited an intense new focus on homeland security. Paul Coe Clark III talked to James Crowe, outgoing chairman of NRIC and CEO of Level 3 Communications, about the new focus and the challenges facing incoming chairman Joe Nacchio of Qwest.

Q: You said at the NRIC 5 wrap-up that NRIC 6 will have a new focus on homeland security. Can you tell us how the decision was made, and what kinds of issues are likely to be considered under that rubric?

A: I would direct you to Michael Powell, because I was taking his lead, both in a number of conversations I had directly with him, then in various public speeches, hes indicated thats his intent. The FCC actually develops the charter for NRIC, so it is their specific charge — they of course collaborate with the chairman — its their specific charge to develop the charter, and I was following his lead, although it certainly doesnt need much imagination to see thats where the energy is going to be spent.

Q: As part of 5 at all, did you look at homeland security issues in terms of what should be on the plate for the next council, in terms of what specific elements of the public network need study?

A: We had a meeting not long after Sept. 11 where we heard from wireline, wireless, competitive providers or exchange companies. I suppose everybody has a view about where the emphasis should be. My own is as follows, and Im speaking individually now, not as chairman of NRIC, that shortly after Sept. 11, the key piece of infrastructure in dealing with the problem was communications. It became critical for rescue workers, policy makers, security professionals, fire to communicate. Fortunately, because we have both a multiplicity of network providers and a multiplicity of network types, that was possible.

In the record of the meeting that occurred, I think it was in October, there are some rather interesting statistics about the contributions of wireless and paging and e-mail — particularly wireless, to the kind of critical communications that occurred. My own thought is that the real lesson is that it is our multiple networks and multiple network providers that provide the best security. And we make certain that we think through an intelligent, direct attack — its effect on multiple networks, multiple providers, and we continue to need to think that through in a thoughtful way to make sure we take advantage of the rich choices in service providers we have in this country. The interconnection and interoperability, which is of course a part of the title of that group, is recognized as absolutely key.

Q: Jeff Goldthorp, who is the new FCC appointee to NRIC, told me that the attacks have drastically speeded up the integration of wireless into NRIC. Do you think thats true?

A: Theres no doubt about it. Yes, I absolutely do. I can speak anecdotally and also on the basis of what I heard in meetings that the public telephone network was actually a minor contributor to the critical communications that took place. It was down. It was wireless, paging and e-mail that carried the day — often a combination of e-mail and pagers, or e-mail and messaging systems, or wireless. It was put to uses that no one thought. There was a heck of an interesting presentation about using the inherent [inaudible] to locate a cellular device, to locate victims. So I think youll see a lot of changes.

Q: But do you think it will drastically increase participation in NRIC by wireless providers?

A: Well, I think theyre already major participants. The wireless providers today tend to be, with one or two exceptions, to be part of the RBOCS — of course, now AT&T Wireless has spun out. What I think is that the participation is going to take the form of a recognition of how important it is, and I think wireless will be a much more important part of the focus groups, which at the end of the day are the real working organizations at NRIC. If you look at the focus-group emphasis, for instance, at NRIC 5, it had a lot to do with packet-circuit interaction. I would recommend thinking hard about wireless packet, and wireless circuit, and wireless Internet integration, and maybe GPS enablement, and some of the other key technologies that make wireless such an attractive alternative in a disaster.

Q: Packets brings us to my next question, which was that NRIC is trying to juggle reliability issues for both circuit- and packet-switched networks at a time when the timing of the transition from the one to the other is very difficult to predict, especially in this economy. What did we learn from NRIC 5 about the migration to packet networks and its effect on reliability?

A: Thats a perceptive question. You probably know theres an old statement that you can have deep, you can have fast, or you can have reliable. Like it or not, rapidly changing technology is the enemy of reliability, at least to a point. What we tolerate in data networks, for instance, in terms of down time is much, much less reliability than we demand in the circuit networks. Its the inverse of the speed of change. Packet networks, data networks, double in performance every 18 months — basically a Moores Law kind of technology. If you track circuit switching, its doubling in performance every 80 months, and its not coincidental that you have a much more reliable platform. At MFS, we had a pretty good-sized circuit network, and it was most reliable when no one touched it, and no one touched it for a long time. We werent always in it. We werent always replacing equipment, upgrading routers, rebuilding routing tables, all that sort of thing.

So we have to make informed, intelligent choices between allowing rapid technical improvement and sort of artificial demands for unrealistic reliability. We need to look for reliability in ways that are compatible with the packet networks. That is, looking to mesh networks, multiple providers, to provide perhaps an overall level of reliability, but understand that any one network may not be where circuit switching is, at least until the pace of change starts to slow down.

Q: There was some disagreement at the last meeting about the extent of participation by packet-based companies, engineers and the like, compared to the level of the public switched industry. Im thinking of Paul Hartman, who said it wasnt the politically correct term, but we need more Netheads. What is your assessment of that?

A: I think thats an important statement. Lets face it, for a lot of years, Netheads believed that Bellheads, the circuit guys, were the devil incarnate and wanted to have nothing to do with that side of the house, and wanted little or no government involvement. Thats understandable. If youre used to a pretty free-and-open arrangement, thats pretty seductive. The trouble is, one of the lessons of Sept. 11 is that packet networks are real and important parts of our communications system. And with that comes a responsibility that just cant be shirked. You have to participate in things like NRIC. You have to think through the effects on public security when you are that important a part of the communications system.

The alternative, refusal, is to invite regulation by policymakers who will believe they will have no choice. You heard...

Q: Powell...

A: Michael Powell. Hes right on. Hes, I think, got an exquisite appreciation for the fact that, if the industry chooses to participate and self-regulate, thats the best choice, but at the end of the day its policymakers responsibility to make sure something happens, and its not good enough to say, simply ignore it. So I usually get up on the soap box every so often and try to encourage everybody to think of self-regulation as the model, and industry participation, because thats the best alternative.

Q: Youre feeding me straight lines like a pro. My next question was, how successful has the NRIC best-practices recommendation process been, and can you foresee ever needing anything stronger for industrywide compliance?

A: Well, my answer is, its been pretty good among those who are more-traditional providers of communications services. It has not been what it should be among the newer providers, and I hope and believe it wont be necessary. As a generality, I find — this is a personal belief, and I hope Im not being overly optimistic — I find that the folks involved in communications — people involved on the data side, the packet side, the Internet — are pretty reasonable people. Theyre used to a cooperative environment. The IETF and a lot of the bodies that formed the Internet were cooperative bodies. I think that, as packet networks and the Internet become more and more a part of our real networking/communications infrastructure, the folks who own and run those networks will simply move the model over and participate. And I believe thats happening — its just like any other process involving large numbers of people and diverse organizations: It doesnt happen overnight. But Im encouraged.

Q: Considering that its a cats-and-dogs organization, that it works as well as it does astonishes me.

A: I agree with that comment, by the way, and I think part of the reason is the focus-group structure. We have real engineers, real people who are responsible for making something happen in rooms, rather than people with white shirts and ties like me who like to make speeches. Those focus groups make it happen, and thats what I like about NRIC, is that we have a whole series of focus groups that involve people who solve real problems, and who view it as a failure when they dont get it done.

Q: Yesterday, when you called, I was out at a speech by [Verizon co-CEO] Ivan Seidenberg at the National Chamber of Commerce. His speech was kind of — in some ways, he paid homage to the CLEC response after Sept. 11. But in other ways, his speech was more the tone he has been taking lately, which is that at a time like this, you need a Bell in every pot to have a secure network. I notice were going, in NRIC chairs, from a CLEC head to the head of a Bell. Was that part of the consideration?

A: Well, Joes got a pretty different background from most of the folks who run the Bells. He was running Qwest, and then merged into US West, and not the other way around, as you know. Also, I think that he will be the chairman of NSTAC [the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee] may be significant. I think its significant. Ive been encouraging Dick Clark, and, for what its worth, Mike Powell, to think about coordinating those two groups. That may have something to do with it; that focus on homeland security may make that important.

With regards to Mr. Seidenbergs comments, I listened to the impressive detail of what the employees and members of Verizon did, and all of us ought to tip our hats to their tremendous job, working around the clock, under very difficult conditions...

Q: We certainly did so in print, repeatedly.

A: But we should also remember that, when the attacks occurred, it wasnt the public switched network that was the network of last resort.

Q: Maybe for the first time in history.

A: I think, for what its worth, thats a good part of the story. For the first time in history, it was alternative networks that were the networks of last resort. So I think Verizons efforts — I assume he was talking about restoring the wireline system — were impressive, but werent the network that was critical an hour after the attacks.

Q: He was quite gracious about everyones involvement after the attacks, but at the same time the message hes propounding in Washington and elsewhere is not so much the recovery from the attacks, but that, from here on out, the people to trust are the people with the deep pockets and the huge field staffs — in a word, the Bells.

A: It would be interesting to see if he would argue that the country would be best served if we eliminated Verizon, BellSouth, SBC and Qwest, and put the old Bell System back together and had an integrated AT&T.

Q: (laughs) Not likely.

A: If thats the case, what is he arguing?

Q: Well, hes arguing, among other things, for passage of Tauzin-Dingell.

A: I think anybody who looks at the situation believes that the RBOCs are what they are in response to competition. If we hadnt broken up the Bell System, a T-1 would still be a high-speed connection. Wed be running copper in the loop and coax across country, and AT&T would still be arguing that the Internet would be damaging to your health.

Q: "Were AT&T, and well tell you when we need it."

A: And if you take a rubber cup, and attach it to your earpiece, it will damage the whole public switched network. So I dont have a lot of sympathy for any argument that says that anything other than a multiplicity of competing providers and a multiplicity of competing technologies is the right way to go. Anything that encourages that outcome is good.

Q: Last question: Why did you take this job in the beginning? Youve got enough on your plate, especially in the current economy.

A: Michael Powell and Mike Armstrong talked me into it. Look, Ive been very fortunate. Ive been fortunate in business and fortunate in what Ive gotten being a part of the country, and its a small enough way to give back a little bit.

Q: Anything else youd like to get in while youve got me?

A: Multiple providers, multiple networks and interconnection. Its been the key. It was the key starting with the Kingsbury Commitment, it was the key with Carterphone, it was the key with opening up all the benefits we have today, and its the key today. We can argue about the best routes and policies to get us there, but that ought to be the goal. Its good policy, and its good politics. Ill repeat it any time somebody asks.