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Electronic Warfare, Hackable 5G Networks, and Cell Towers on the Moon

IEEE Spectrum’s biggest telecom headlines of 2022

6 min read
The curved surface of the moon with a large crater occupied by a parabolic dish suspended by cables.

This illustration depicts a conceptual Lunar Crater Radio Telescope on the Moon’s far side.

NASA

2022, like every year, saw the arrival of countless new telecom technologies. But it’s those technologies that really swing for the fences that capture the imagination. That’s why this year, IEEE Spectrum‘s readers spent their time learning about proposals to bring something like 5G to the moon, to change how the Internet’s very core would be structured, and to finally solve an antenna design problem that has persisted for over 80 years.

Of course, other, more serious stories also got attention—such as the 5G rollout that had pilots on edge and the changing role (and effectiveness) of Russia’s electronic warfare usage in its invasion of Ukraine.

Here are the top stories that caught our readers’ eyes in 2022:


​The Fall and Rise of Russian Electronic Warfare

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now creeping into its 10th month. Just a few weeks into the invasion, however, Ukrainian troops stumbled upon an abandoned shipping container that turned out to house a sophisticated Russian electronic warfare system: the Krasukha-4.

Thanks in part to equipment like the Krasukha-4, Russia was long thought to have some of the best electronic warfare units in any military, which could be used to interrupt, disrupt, and assault Ukraine’s wireless communications and other technology. But when the Russian’s couldn’t sustain their initial advance, top-of-the-line equipment was left on the side of the road for Ukrainians to find.

So why did Russian electronic warfare fail? The answer, it turns out, is logistics, and the perils of moving too quickly—but as the pace of the war has slowed and battle lines become more clearly drawn, the advantage has swung back to Russia again.

5G Networks Are Worryingly Hackable

Network operators continue to make big pushes for 5G—both in terms of infrastructure deployment and getting consumers to buy in. The uptake by the latter has been slower than operators would like, something that’s not likely to be helped by the discovery that 5G networks are more vulnerable to attacks in ways their cellular predecessors were not.

The issues stem from the increased network virtualization of many 5G networks, in which previously analog or on-site cell tower operations have been moved into the cloud. The trend has opened up networks to potential attacks from bad actors who could go so far as to gain control of the network itself. That’s exactly what “red team” hackers led by Karsten Nohl managed in security test results they revealed earlier this year.

The silver lining on this cloud? Most of the issues stem from operators failing to properly configure their new virtual network components, rather than a fundamental issue with the tech itself.

The Plan to Give the Moon Decent Wireless Coverage

Interest in exploring and studying the Moon is currently at a peak not seen since the Apollo era. Half a century later, the successful launch and return to Earth of NASA’s Artemis I is just the tip of the iceberg—over 90 missions are being considered by governments and private interests by 2030.

With so many rovers, landers, orbiters, and satellites headed out to our celestial neighbor, some researchers are rethinking how they’ll all stay in touch. One such group, based at NASA and Italian aerospace company Argotec, has developed a concept for an orbiting relay satellite constellation they call Andromeda. The constellation would be comprised of 24 satellites in 4 different lunar orbits. The ultimate goal is to provide “5G-like capabilities” across the entire moon (that is, fast connections, low latencies, and big bandwidths)—perhaps bolstered by cell towers on the lunar surface—and a strong link back to Earth.

Why the Internet Needs the InterPlanetary File System

There is a vast amount of redundant data bouncing around the Internet. Think about the last smash hit by Netflix or HBO Max that you binged—when you watched those episodes, your device requested the streaming data from the company’s servers. Even with load-balancing networks, when millions of people do that same, that’s a lot of Stranger Things or House of Dragons data thundering through networks to get to everyone’s screens.

The InterPlanetary File System, as its creators wrote about for IEEE Spectrum, aims to reinvent the Internet’s underlying structure to cut down on that kind of redundancy, and create permanent and verifiable information storage to boot. At its core, it’s a peer-to-peer network on a grand scale in an effort to put data closer to where it’s wanted. There are still some kinks to work out, however, not least of which is the system’s absolutely unreadable-by-humans hash-based URLs.

SpaceX and Dish’s Super-Shady War for the World

More and more companies are launching vast numbers of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations in a bid to corner the market in providing wireless service to customers beyond the reach of terrestrial networks. Perhaps chief among them, of course, is SpaceX with its Starlink constellation.

As the number of satellites in orbit grows, however, they’re beginning to impinge on the frequencies used by Earth-based networks. Wireless spectrum is a valuable (and finite) commodity, so the looming issue is who has the rights to which frequencies—and where, and when, and how.

To make matters worse (in the United States, at least), the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is down a commissioner from its usual total of 5, splitting the potential to make controversial rights rulings 2-2 on party lines. The result? A protracted war over spectrum rights that’s only going to get more complicated before it gets clearer.

A Four-Year Program to Tackle a Fundamental Antenna Challenge

There’s one particular antenna design problem that has haunted engineers for 80 years: How to make tiny antennas receive signals on wavelengths much longer than their physical size. In an effort to finally solve the problem, the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) announced a four-year program called the Effective Quantitative Antenna Limits for Performance (EQuAL-P).

These tiny antennas, called electrically small antennas, are able to receive much longer wavelength signals because they take the form of small loops or patches, rather than the elongated dipole antenna configuration most people are familiar with. Electrically small antennas exactly what’s needed for applications where space is limited, such as on board a satellite or in a tiny IoT device. For decades, however, the design of these antennas has run up against the performance barrier of the Chu-Harrington limit, which in part has made it hard to mass-design and mass-produce electrically small antennas.

Like the better known DARPA and ARPA-E, IARPA sets out to incentivize high-risk, high-reward fundamental research through various programs and challenges. Over the four years of the EQuAL-P program, participating teams will navigate through 3 stages of increasingly difficult benchmarks to prove their designs can work. If any teams can meet the program’s expectations by the end, they’ll have achieved a remarkable breakthrough in antenna technology.

Wi-Fi 7 Stomps on the Gas

Wi-Fi went mainstream in 2003 (although it’s been around for longer), and it’s been undergoing updates ever since. 2022 saw the debut of Wi-Fi standard 802.11be. Colloquially known as Wi-Fi 7, the new standard promises a huge leap in bandwidth capacity.

Following on the 600 megabits per second offered by Wi-Fi 6 (released in 2019) and support of a third wireless band (6 gigahertz) in Wi-Fi 6E (released in 2020), Wi-Fi 7 aims to up wireless speeds again by supporting up to 40 gigabits per second. To that speed put in perspective, that’s about twice as fast as the top speeds offered by commercial 5G networks.

The bad news is that Wi-Fi 7-enabled routers are most likely not going to be available until 2024. And while the speeds it offers may be orders of magnitude of overkill for surfing the web, it could be necessary for streaming virtual and augmented reality.

How 5G’s Rollout Rattled Hundreds of Pilots

In January, there was growing uncertainty about the rollout of 5G services near airports in the United States. The core concern by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration was that the 5G towers would interfere with the radio altimeters used by pilots during take-offs and landings, making it difficult for them to judge how high off the ground in these crucial moments.

The two technologies don’t use the same frequencies: 5G use frequencies between 3.7 and 4.0 gigahertz, while radio altimeters use the 4.2-4.4 GHz band. But the 220 megahertz separation was not enough, in the FAA’s estimation, to guarantee that interference would not happen. An eleventh-hour deal was struck between the FAA and cellular operators to delay the rollouts and reduce the power of 5G transmitters in the vicinity of airports.

Still, it may not have been enough. When the cell towers switched on, NASA received a slew of complaints from pilots, via the agency’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. While it’s not entirely certain if 5G is to blame—it’s possible that pilots, rattled by the FAA’s concerns ahead of the rollout, are mistaking coincidence for causation in some cases—when the FAA reviewed the complaints, they could not rule out 5G interference in roughly 80 cases this year.

How the FCC Settles Radio Spectrum Turf Wars

The 5G rollout near airports wasn’t the only radiofrequency kerfuffle in 2022. Another was the FCC’s decision to allow Wi-Fi 6 to use the same 6 gigahertz frequency bandwidth used by secure point-to-point microwave systems. In a feature for IEEE Spectrum, electrical engineer and attorney Mitchell Lazarus explained how the FCC defuses a situation in which two or more interests want access to the same spectrum.

At the core of the problem is that not all spectrum is created equal—lower frequencies travel farther, for example, while higher frequencies can transmit more data in a given time interval. So depending on what you want to do, certain frequencies are more appealing than others. And if what you want to do is similar in aspects to other wireless applications, you may find yourself looking at spectrum that some other industry or agency has been using for decades.

The nitty-gritty of RF spectrum usage is far too complicated to sum up here, so take a look at Lazarus’ in-depth write-up of how these turf wars flare up, unravel, and get resolved.

3G’s Sunset Takes Aging Cars and Medical Devices With It

Every year, there are plenty of debuts and rollouts and reveals of new technologies. But 2022 also saw the end of an era in the United States as telecom providers switched off their 3G networks. And although 3G had certainly been around for a long time—18 years, all told—it actually had a shorter lifespan than 2G (nearly 30 years).

Even before these networks switched off, most people reading this probably weren’t browsing the Internet or downloading videos over 3G. But 3G was still a core technology for many alarm systems, medical alert devices, and even cars, including ones manufactured just a year before the 3G sunset.

3G may not have seen much day-to-day use by cellphone users anymore, and it fell victim in the end of the (perhaps insatiable) spectrum hunger of 5G, but it was a watershed technology worth taking a minute to remember.

The Conversation (0)

How Police Exploited the Capitol Riot’s Digital Records

Forensic technology is powerful, but is it worth the privacy trade-offs?

11 min read
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 Illustration of the silhouette of a person with upraised arm holding a cellphone in front of the U.S. Capitol building. Superimposed on the head is a green matrix, which represents data points used for facial recognition
Gabriel Zimmer
Green

The group of well-dressed young men who gathered on the outskirts of Baltimore on the night of 5 January 2021 hardly looked like extremists. But the next day, prosecutors allege, they would all breach the United States Capitol during the deadly insurrection. Several would loot and destroy media equipment, and one would assault a policeman.

No strangers to protest, the men, members of the America First movement, diligently donned masks to obscure their faces. None boasted of their exploits on social media, and none of their friends or family would come forward to denounce them. But on 5 January, they made one piping hot, family-size mistake: They shared a pizza.

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