Guest Blog: Resilient Communications: The Backbone of a Smarter Future

Fast forward ten years to a world where Gartner’s prophesised 25 billion connected devices is now reality. Our cars, houses, kettles - EVERYTHING is smart and interconnected in ways we haven’t yet thought of. Factories produce our next purchase before we’ve even realised we need it, let alone placed an order. Artificial intelligence and distributed ledgers run in the background, automatically making and communicating decisions seamlessly to both humans and machines. This not-too-distant future promises to deliver efficiency, productivity, sustainability and cost savings in almost every aspect of our lives.

The communications backbone of our nation will not only need to be fit-for-purpose to handle the explosion of data hurtling across the globe, but also contain layers of security, resilience and redundancy to contain and manage any distortions. Without this, our connected utopia could be shattered, accidentally or otherwise, within nanoseconds.

The recent Blackett review, the Government’s quantum technology report, [1] highlights the importance of timing in communications. As data transmission networks become networks of networks, the challenging requirement for stable and reliable reconstruction of data packets as they arrive at their intended location will only be amplified as traffic increases. Differences in timing could result in an order being recognised as received before it’s even been placed. The risk of opening up entry points for attack also becomes more pronounced.

Currently, most standards in place to underpin communications rely on some form of GNSS (global navigation satellite system) timing, which itself is prone to interference or even jamming and spoofing. Last year, a software glitch was propagated to 15 GPS satellites, causing a mere 13.7 microsecond timing error. This resulted in the disruption of power grids, broadcast operations (e.g. BBC DAB) and other time-reliant infrastructure for up to 12 hours [2], bearing testament to the need for resilient communications composed of alternative timing modalities and adhering to national and international standards.

The Blackett review recommends, among other things, a terrestrial timing infrastructure that would confer resilience and present opportunities for far higher degrees of synchronisation between networks. An early example of how this might be deployed can be seen in the finance sector [3]. The forthcoming EU MiFID II regulations [4] demand traceability to the international time scale, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), at an accuracy of 100 microseconds and are driving the adoption of alternative timing sources, to understand activity across trading venues and work towards a consolidated audit trail.

One such source, NPLTime®, is directly traceable to UTC and delivered via dedicated dark fibre. We therefore don’t have high barriers to climb to introduce precise time into communications networks and the advantages proffered are significant for a resilient and robust infrastructure.

The establishment of security and resilience at the lowest layer possible means we can then happily address challenges related to front-haul/back-haul, MIMO, signal-to-noise (to name just a few) and the development and deployment of devices and technologies that’ll enable us to fully benefit from a digital and data-driven economy with peace of mind. Resilient communications will enable innovative disruption, rather than cause disruption.

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Guest blog from Sundeep Bhandari, Strategy Manager – Digital, National Physical Laboratory (NPL),  for techUK's "Good to Great Connectivity for the UK" Week.

Get involved at #ConnectedFuture. More information is available on techUK’s Communications Infrastructure Programme.

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