Nashville bombing shows domestic communications vulnerabilities

It took four days for AT&T to restore full communications after the bombing

When an RV exploded in Downtown Nashville it shattered windows, blew the front off buildings, and took down communication lines leading out of an AT&T hub.

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Those lines connected not only Nashville, but ran throughout states from Kentucky to Georgia. The blast's damage knocked out communications in several states including 911 call centers, hospitals, mobile phones and internet connectivity. The impact was so severe that Nashville International Airport was forced to issue a ground stop of flights after losing connection to the internet.

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The attack in Downtown Nashville uncovered an Achilles heel in 21st century infrastructure according to Vanderbilt University Professor of Computer Sciences Douglas Schmidt. "People probably didn't realize that the 911 service was somehow associated with the telecommunications equipment and the connections that ran through that building," said Schmidt,

The professor added that people also didn't understand the impact such an event could have on everything from the internet to mobile devices to "old-fashioned" hardline telephones.

"I think what we learned from this was that there were dependencies that ran through a single point of failure and the fact that most people, perhaps even parts of AT&T, didn't realize the extent of the dependencies as well," said Schmidt.

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While  Presidential Policy Directive 21 identifies the communications sector as critical because it provides an “enabling function” across all critical infrastructure sectors, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), some legislators say it is time to do more.

."We need to make sure that not only do we protect our grid from a software, cyber-security standpoint, but we have got to have physical protection for our grid," said  Chuck Fleischmann, R-TN.

As the ranking member on the Homeland Security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Fleischman said it is clear that the government needs to "make sure that the structures that would house this critical infrastructure would be protected."

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Fleischmann represents Eastern Tennessee with suburbs of Knoxville and parts of Chattanooga in his district which experienced outages of  911 centers, mobile phones, and hospitals. In the aftermath of the bombing, Fleishmann said "maybe this will be an awakening for us as legislators to make sure that this doesn't happen again."

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AT&T says it officially has restored full capability to its communications lines. It took four days to make that happen. The investigation into why suspected bomber Anthony Warner blew himself up in an RV continues at the local as well as the federal level.

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