UK altnet providers raise alarm over spate of physical attacks on network infrastructure sites

Digital connectivity concept image showing London skyline with network links located at various points.
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UK altnet providers have raised concerns about a rising tide of physical attacks on network infrastructure sites and has called for tougher sentencing rules for culprits. 

With attention often focused on the risk of cyber attacks, the group, led by fiber network provider Ogi and Vorboss, has written to Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) warning that physical attacks can risk lives.

The severity of penalties should reflect the potential risks to life, as well as the critical role that full fiber plays, the group said. The joint letter by Ogi and Vorboss called for 'lengthy prison terms' and 'appropriate fines'.

"By asking for such severe consequences, we hope to deter individuals from engaging in activities that puts lives at risk and compromises the connectivity that we all increasingly rely on," the letter reads.

The group has called on DSIT and Ofcom to conduct a review of security practices at fiber infrastructure across the UK. It also asks for more direction from the government to make sure that police forces prioritize attacks on critical digital infrastructure.

In addition, the network operators would also like to see strict enforcement of essential security compliance protocols by the industry, specifically ensuring that all network builders adhere to Openreach ‘whereabouts’ compliance.

In their letter, the network operators suggested that Openreach may have a potential conflict of interest in that it competes with the network operators that use its ducts and poles. The group called for Ofcom to step in and improve compliance.

"Working with the UK and devolved governments now means we can make sure this infrastructure – feeding our homes, businesses and critical public services – is backed by laws that are fit for purpose; deterring those who aim to sabotage the connectivity we increasingly lean on for our working, social, and day-to-day lives," said Ogi CEO Ben Allwright.

"Now is the time for us to get around the table to make sure this vital infrastructure has the protection it needs."

UK altnet providers struggle with vandalism

The call comes following a series of attacks that have cut off homes, businesses, and public services, including hospitals.

Late last year, for example, Netomnia said vandals cut numerous cables, while in January Ogi reported extensive damage had been caused to its fiber to the premises (FTTP) network in South Wales.

Pine Media also suffered severed cables in Sheffield in the same month.

Last October, a hospital and financial institution in central London were taken offline after a vandal gained access to the network and cut through a cable.

"Change is needed to protect the country’s digital infrastructure. We’ve raised these concerns after a series of attacks on telecoms networks," said Vorboss CEO Tim Creswick.

"Resilience of digital connectivity should be a critical priority, and DSIT and Ofcom have the responsibility to affect these important changes. A review of current rules is desperately needed, from sentencing to policing to enforcing industry compliance."

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.