Disaster link to ride on defence network

Disaster link to ride on defence network

New Delhi: India is setting up a secure communications backbone that will ride on a proposed Armed Forces network to ensure that key government offices aren’t cut off in the event of disasters such as the 2004 tsunami or terrorist attacks such as the one in Mumbai last year.

About 5,000 offices will be connected to the Rs10,000 crore alternate optical fibre cable (OFC) network being built for the defence services by state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL).

Home ministry officials said the government initiative to build this level of redundancy in the system was unprecedented and would mark a quantum leap in having secure communication lines in the face of law and order problems and disasters.

“This is the first time essential offices are being linked at the national level, and it will be operational in time of emergency," said a senior official in the home ministry, who did not want to be identified.

The system will also be used in case regular means of communication are not considered secure enough to transmit sensitive data by offices that are given access to OFC, said a senior official in the department of telecommunications (DoT) on condition of anonymity, as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The two state-owned telecom firms are building a 40,000km OFC network that will cost the Army and the Navy Rs8,893 crore and the Air Force Rs1,077 crore.

The alternate OFC for the Air Force, on which work has already begun, is expected to be completed by October. The Air Force is expected to move to this network by March 2010 after the necessary testing is completed.

The plan to open the network up to government offices may be discomfiting for the Armed Forces, given that the move may increase vulnerability.

“A requirement for defence forces globally is that the alternate communication network has to be secure at both the end-point and within the network," said Varadarajan Sridhar, research fellow at Sasken Communication Technologies Ltd. “That is why optical fibre networks are built to provide secure communications the world over. But they will have to evolve some sort of mechanism so as to not allow the security requirements to cause a rise in the cost of the network."

The DoT official said the home ministry would have to set stringent conditions for access. “The exact terms of use and accessibility will be defined by the home ministry...they will also have to ensure that defence security is not compromised."

The Armed Forces will shift most of their communication needs to the OFC network, allowing them to vacate large amounts of scarce and valuable spectrum needed for mobile phone services in the country.

The main reason for connecting the network to the ministries and their offices is that, apart from security being ensured by virtue of this being a defence project, it won’t be dependent on the existing telecom network, another senior official said on condition of anonymity. “This OFC will be better than any private operator in reach and will have separate manpower for management, maintenance and operations."

The Armed Forces are expected to vacate at least 45MHz of spectrum, comprising 25MHz needed for third-generation (3G) mobile services and the rest for existing 2G mobile services. Bharti Airtel Ltd, the country’s largest telecom services provider, has a maximum of 10MHz in its mobile service areas.

According to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the defence ministry and DoT, the Armed Forces will vacate the spectrum over 36 months. Two blocks of 10MHz of 3G airwaves and one block of 2G frequencies were to have been released at the time of signing the MoU, but that hasn’t taken place yet, according to an internal DoT note. The rest is to be released based on the progress made by the alternate OFC.

BSNL is expected to issue the request for participation for building OFC in a month’s time. MTNL is building the network in Delhi and Mumbai, the areas of its operation, while BSNL will execute the project in the rest of the country.

MTNL will first connect all key ministries to OFC in Delhi. The rest of the integration, with offices across the country, will take place after BSNL finishes the work. The project is mandated to be completed in 36 months after the MoU is signed.

Sridhar said costs would need to be considered carefully. “Having an alternate communication system is a good move as it relieves the traditional microwave communications (mobile telephony) in an emergency. But it has to be used prudently. This OFC has been in the pipeline for four years now, and the cost estimates have risen from Rs1,300 crore to Rs10,000 crore," he said.

Liz Mathew contributed to this story.