UK network operators under attack!

Alternative network providers are calling on UK government to help protect against a growing number of local physical attacks on fiber infrastructure.

The group, led by Ogi and Vorboss, has written to Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan asking for a review of the rules that safeguard networks kit.

This follows recent spate of attacks on optical fiber network infrastructure around the country which represent an emerging threat to public services and businesses, the group says. Attacks have resulted in entire streets or communities being cut off until the damage can be repaired.

The letter is signed by executives from a number of altnets, plus the Chair of trade body INCA (the Independent Networks Cooperative Association). The group wants the government to consider greater police engagement with this issue and to consider tougher sentences for those found to have damaged network pipes and plumbing.

“This is something we have seen an increase of over the last 18 months,” said Howard Jones, head of communications at Vorboss, which provides fiber connections of up to 100Gbps for businesses in the London area.

Jones told The Register that attacks range from simply chopping through fiber-optic cables in an underground duct, to lifting the cover of an access chamber, pouring in petrol, and setting the whole lot alight.

The motives for these attacks are thought to be simply vandalism or people with a grudge against a particular provider, rather than being a case of network operators aiming to sabotage their rivals, Jones claimed.

“You find instances where a chamber containing equipment for multiple providers has been accessed, but only one provider has been attacked,” he said, adding that it could be ex-employees with a grudge and that some attacks have even been 5G protesters simply targeting any digital infrastructure.

Ogi, which operates mostly in Wales, suffered an attack on its infrastructure in January in the Pembroke Dock area after which engineers had to effectively rebuild parts of a newly installed network covering 600m (nearly 2,000 feet) across several sites in the town, according to ISP Review.

Police engagement with these incidents should be reviewed to better reflect the severity of the damage and harm these attacks can cause, the letter says. The implication is that police forces are not taking the matter seriously enough, and the group would like a more proactive approach.

“If it was an attack on an exchange, there would be a police presence within minutes,” Jones said.

Intentional damage to fiber infrastructure should also be categorized as a criminal offense distinct from ordinary criminal damage, the letter suggests, and proposes that perpetrators of these crimes should face the threat of lengthy prison terms and appropriate fines as a deterrent.

In a statement sent to The Register, Katie Milligan, chief commercial office at Openreach, said:

"As the largest network in the UK with the highest regulated service standards to uphold, nobody suffers more from poor ‘whereabouts’ compliance than Openreach and no-one’s keener to improve it.

“We’re continuing to work closely with the industry and Ofcom to make sure that work is recorded properly and completed safely and securely. We’ve been doing this in a very collaborative way and, whilst we do have options for stricter enforcement if that’s needed, we’d prefer not to have to enforce contractual penalties. Right now, no company using our network is 100 percent compliant, so everyone has work to do to improve.

“It’s also important to emphasise that compliance isn’t a silver bullet to prevent damage and security issues. It can help of course, but it doesn’t account for malicious acts or provide conclusive proof of causes."

PP Foresight telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore said this is an ongoing issue which will have severe implications if not addressed properly.

“The authorities need to put an action plan in place to avoid this happening in the first place and ensure that services are restored as quickly as possible,” he told us. “Such activity can cause more than just disruption as it can prevent access to emergency services and for healthcare devices to not work properly.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) said in a statement sent to The Register that: “We have one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world and we continue to work closely with relevant organisations to identify risks and ensure the security and resilience of our telecoms network infrastructure.”

“We have engaged with providers and relevant authorities to understand these concerns and identify whether there is support Government can provide to safeguard networks and ensure that services can operate without disruption. Any case of suspected criminal damage to telecoms infrastructure should be reported to the police to investigate.”

The industry itself also needs to up its own game on logging when any authorised access to network infrastructure occurs, the altnet group concedes.

“There must be strict enforcement of ‘whereabouts compliance,’ a contractual obligation requiring all network operators and anyone acting on their behalf to register their activity when using physical networks,” the letter states, bemoaning that “industry compliance is low and falling”.