Where’s Our Infrastructure Plan B?

3 weeks ago 133
Health Tech

Apr 3, 2024

By KMI BELLARD

I’ve been thinking a lot about infrastructure. In particular, what to do when it fails.

There was, of course, the tragic collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. Watching the video – and, honestly, what were the odds there’d be video? — is like watching a disaster movie, the bridge crumbling slowly but unstoppably. The bridge had been around for almost fifty years, withstanding over 11 million vehicles crossing it each year. All it took to knock it down was one container ship.

Container ships passed under it every day of its existence; the Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest in the country. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that the bridge would collapse; certainly one of those ships had to hit it eventually. The thing is, it wasn’t inevitable; it was a reflection of the fact that the world the bridge was designed for is not our world.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg noted: “What we do know is a bridge like this one, completed in the 1970s, was simply not made to withstand a direct impact on a critical support pier from a vessel that weighs about 200 million pounds—orders of magnitude bigger than cargo ships that were in service in that region at the time that the bridge was first built,” 

When the bridge was designed in the early 1970’s, container ships had a capacity of around 3000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent foot units, a measure of shipping containers). The ship that hit the bridge was carrying nearly three times that amount – and there are container ships that can carry over 20,000 TEUs. The New York Times estimated that the force of the ship hitting the bridge was equivalent to a rocket launch.

“It’s at a scale of more energy than you can really get your mind around,” Ben Schafer, a professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins, told NYT.

Nii Attoh-Okine, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland, added: “Depending on the size of the container ship, the bridge doesn’t have any chance,” but Sherif El-Tawil, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, disagreed, claiming: “If this bridge had been designed to current standards, it would have survived.” The key feature missing were protective systems built around the bases of the bridge, as have been installed on some other bridges.

We shouldn’t expect that this was a freak occurrence, unlikely to be repeated. An analysis by The Wall Street Journal identified at least eight similar bridges also at risk, but pointed out what is always the problem with infrastructure: “The upgrades are expensive.”

Lest anyone forget, America’s latest infrastructure report card rated our overall infrastructure a “C-,” with bridges getting a “C” (in other words, other infrastructure is even worse).

What’s the plan?

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Then here’s an infrastructure story that threw me even more.

The New York Times profiled the vulnerability of our satellite-based GPS system, upon which much of our modern society depends. NYT warned: “But those services are increasingly vulnerable as space is rapidly militarized and satellite signals are attacked on Earth. Yet, unlike China, the United States does not have a Plan B for civilians should those signals get knocked out in space or on land.”

Huh?

At least in Baltimore drivers can take another bridge or container ships can use another port, but if cyberattacks or satellite killers took out our GPS capabilities, well, I know many people who couldn’t get home from work. “It’s like oxygen, you don’t know that you have it until it’s gone,” Adm. Thad W. Allen, who leads a national advisory board for space-based positioning, navigation and timing, said last year.

“The Chinese did what we in America said we would do,” Dana Goward, the president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation in Virginia, told NYT. “They are resolutely on a path to be independent of space.” Still, NYT reports: “Despite recognizing the risks, the United States is years from having a reliable alternative source for time and navigation for civilian use if GPS signals are out or interrupted.”

The economic and societal impacts of such a loss are almost unfathomable.

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And, if you assume, well, the odds of satellite killers taking out all of the GPS satellites is unlikely – Elon can just send more up! – then think about the underseas cables that carry most of the world’s internet traffic. According to Robin Chataut, writing in The Conversation, there are some 485 such cables, with over 900,000 miles of cable, and they carry 95% of internet data.

What you don’t realize, though, as Professor Cataut points out, is: “Each year, an estimated 100 to 150 undersea cables are cut, primarily accidentally by fishing equipment or anchors. However, the potential for sabotage, particularly by nation-states, is a growing concern.”

The cables, he notes, “often lie in isolated but publicly known locations, making them easy targets for hostile actions.” He recommends more use of satellites, so I guess he’s not as worried about satellite killers. 

We’ve recently seen suspicious outages in West Africa and in the Baltic Sea, and cables near Taiwan have been cut 27 times in the last five years, “which is considered a lot by global standards,” according to ABC Pacific; accordingly, “it has been happening so frequently that authorities in Taiwan have started war-gaming what it would look like to lose their communications with the outside world altogether and what it would mean for domestic security and national defence systems.”

It’s not just Taiwan that should be war-gaming about infrastructure failures.

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If all this seems far afield from healthcare, I have two words for you: Change Healthcare.

Until six weeks ago, most of us had never heard of Change Healthcare, and even among those who had, few realized just how much the U.S. healthcare system relied on its claims clearinghouses. With those frozen due to a cyberattack, physician practices, pharmacies, even hospitals weren’t getting paid, creating a huge crisis.

Infrastructure matters.

Think what would happen if, say, Epic went off-line everywhere.  Or have we forgotten one of the key lessons of 2020, when we realized that over half of our prescription drugs (or their active pharmaceutical ingredients – APIs) are imported?   

Healthcare, like every industry, relies on infrastructure.

Infrastructure is one of the many things Americans like to avoid thinking about, like climate change, the national deficit, or healthcare’s insane costs. I understand that we can’t fix everything at once, nor anything quickly, but at the very least we should be coming up with Plan Bs for when critical infrastructure does finally fail.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor

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