AT&T to run Cold War-era military network for five more years

In 1964, AT&T introduced the PicturePhone at the New York World's Fair and the Defense Communications Agency managed global communications for the Defense Department based primarily on voice and teletype circuits.

Since then, AT&T has been broken up and then reconstituted, the Defense Communications Agency morphed in 1991 into the Defense Information Systems Agency -- which runs a global network based primarily on data communications -- and Skype realized the PicturePhone vision of consumer video calling in 2005.

Around the time AT&T introduced the PicturePhone, it also developed a voice conferencing nuclear command-and-control network called the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Alerting Network. DISA said Monday it planned to give AT&T a sole-source contract to keep the network in operation for another five years.

Spokeswoman Alana Casanova said DISA awarded the $3.3 million contract extension to AT&T because the company owns the CJCSAN equipment. AT&T also needed authorization to provide new circuits to support the network, as the current CJCSAN circuit contract expires this month.

Casanova said the contract extension will allow AT&T to "continue to provide highly reliable, critical conferencing capability to the National Command Authority, Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders."

She did not provide an exact start date for CJCSAN except to say it was sometime in the 1960s. A November 1964 article hosted on the Coldwar-C4I net web archive from a journal published by Bell Labs -- AT&T's research arm -- indicates CJCSAN was well into operation at that time, able to connect commanders worldwide in five seconds over specialized circuits with a push of a button. The article also said CJCSAN users could pre-empt other lower-level users for the circuits they needed for conference calls.

In its justification and approval statement for CJCSAN network, DISA indicated why it still had to continue to operate a Cold War relic for the next five years. During the past decade DISA has developed Web-based or Internet Protocol networks to carry its data as well as voice and video traffic, which leaves those networks vulnerable to hacker attacks.

Since CJCSAN does not operate over the Internet, "it is not subject to the problems associated with the Web," DISA said. The agency added, "while the technology and capability of the legacy systems are over 40 years old, its reliability and functionality is intact." With CJCSAN, DISA said, AT&T provides "a zero threat network configuration using non-IP based primary and backup switch systems along with legacy transport circuits and network central office equipment. The use of leased circuits along with the military features of Multilevel Precedence and Pre-emption ensures the zero threat environment is carried end to end."

AT&T runs CJCSAN out of its highly secure Special Government Operations Center in Waldorf, Md., and another network hub in Raleigh, N.C., DISA said.