Building a Cyber Alabama

single-meta-cal September 4, 2017

Mayor Battle offered his vision for a cyber Alabama during his address to the annual conference of  Government Managed Information Systems (GMIS): Alabama

We are at an inflection point. We have never had so much information at our disposal, and at the same time, we have never had so many threats seeking to get that information. When we talk cyber security, we are really talking about risk tolerance. What’s your appetite for risk? What can you lose? What can’t you lose?

If you want to be completely invulnerable from a cyber-attack, the answer is simple: just unplug all your devices, pull out the typewriters that have been collecting dust for decades and be prepared to be lapped by your competition. That’s not a viable solution. So much of what we hear are problems, finger pointing, and kicking the can down the road. In Huntsville, we are working to address some of the most critical issues of our time. Our goal is to take the model and strategy we have established in our area and scale up to a state policy – making a true Cyber Alabama.

At a time when we are in a global war for talent, we can’t afford to have a workforce that is technologically illiterate.”


Much like building a house, building a Cyber Alabama will require a solid foundation. That foundation comes from having a solid workforce.

The World Economic Forum reports that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. Many of those jobs will be in the cyber field.

In Huntsville, our students have access to computer technology from the time they begin kindergarten. Access to technology helps break down the digital divide. At a time when we are in a global war for talent, we can’t afford to have a workforce that is technologically illiterate. The industrial age required workers with a strong back; the information age requires workers with a strong mind. Workers who are digital natives. Workers who understand systems and how they interact.

When you understand the vulnerabilities of the system at the base level, you can prepare for the most sophisticated attacks.

Working in the information age doesn’t stop with getting computers. Our elementary students are learning how to write their names in binary. Our middle school students are learning how to write software programs. All of our high schools have cyber teams and these teams win national competitions.

It’s these cyber patriots that will help defend us from adversaries that seek to do us harm. These are the kids you’re going to want to hire. We need to encourage high schools across the state to invest in a cyber curriculum. It’s time to add cyber to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). This curriculum needs to be backed by credentials recognized by employers as being relevant. Creating a workforce that is ready for college and career is one of the greatest economic development wins we can hope for.

The industrial age required workers with a strong back; the information age requires workers with a strong mind. Workers who are digital natives.”

Another way we can ensure early digital learning is by supporting an Alabama-based Cyber Camp. Our first group of graduates just walked across the stage at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, home to Space Camp and now Cyber Camp. If we can reach them while they are young, we have a great chance of keeping them engaged.

Our two-year and four-year schools also play a vital role. Our two-year programs are an extension of our workforce team because they generate graduates ready to work after getting a credential or an associate’s degree. At J.F. Drake State Technical and Community College, the first group of students is about to begin a unique partner program with Apple on its Swift Coding language for Apps. There is no reason this program can’t be extended to all our two-year colleges. Gaining expertise in one coding language helps promote an understanding of others.

We know there is a shortage of app developers in this country and in this state. Huntsville area two-year schools also have programs for cyber security. Understanding how to protect the infrastructure and network of the workplace is a secondary defense behind personal vigilance against threats. Calhoun Community College’s program is helping us fill the need for network administrators and cyber security professionals.

Alabama ranks 40th in the nation for connectivity.”

Our research universities are uniquely positioned to help us make new discoveries in cyber security. How will artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things play into cyber security? How can we use blockchain to make transactions more secure? How can we use machine learning for penetration testing, debugging, and monitoring around the clock so that management can focus on higher level issues? How can we use big data to make better decisions? Nearly every aspect of the business enterprise is going to the cloud, so how do we protect our information better? Those are answers we will find out through basic and applied research at our universities. That is also the research that will help lead to the creation of new products that will be the centerpieces of new companies that will hire new employees that compete in new industries.

GIG Infrastructure

When we talk about building a Cyber Alabama, we can’t ignore the fact that Alabama’s citizens and businesses need to be able to connect to the world. Alabama ranks 40th in the nation for connectivity. There are 883,000 people in Alabama without access to a wired connection capable of 25 megabits per second download speeds, the threshold for broadband according to the FCC.  There are 1.1 million people in Alabama that have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch.

Huntsville was facing a similar situation. When I took office, businesses both big and small were telling me about how lack of access to affordable, reliable broadband was hurting their competitiveness. I was hearing horror stories from our tech companies that found it faster to send large data files via FedEx or the post office than uploading data via the internet. That is unacceptable in a place like Huntsville, where we are known for our technology. We started working on a plan, and I’m proud to say we are now one of the most connected cities in the U.S.

We are unleashing a whole new segment of our economy: the home-based office.”

Our model is unique. Huntsville Utilities is building a fiber optic network to connect its various substations, transformers and water plants. That network, expanded off that backbone, goes in front of every home in Huntsville. That network has excess capacity that may be leased out to ISPs. The first tenant on that network is Google Fiber. After Google Fiber announced, we had AT&T, Comcast, WoW!, Mediacom and others enhance their services to business and citizens. When companies compete, the customer is the winner. You get better service, better prices, and better opportunities. We are unleashing a whole new segment of our economy: the home-based office. We have heard stories from folks who will now be able to work from home while also taking care of their family.

I had a meeting with a young lady who lives in Huntsville but works for Disney World in Orlando. She can now send her work to Orlando using high-speed broadband. Orlando sends her a paycheck that becomes part of Huntsville’s economy. We also met someone who is providing traffic engineering services for the City of San Francisco from his home in Huntsville. This means someone else is sending money into our community and those dollars are going to our local businesses. We define that as Economic Development.

Imagine if we take this same model across the state.

We need to take advantage of other great pieces of infrastructure. The Montgomery Internet Exchange is one of those examples. Until recently, everything from emails to YouTube videos were routed through hubs in Atlanta, Nashville, Miami or elsewhere. Now, all of that data can come through a data center in downtown Montgomery.

Collaborative Environment

To successfully create a Cyber Alabama, we need a collaborative environment. Auburn University, where Ron Burgess and his cyber teams do extensive work, is a natural fit to work with the Air Force cyber command in Montgomery.  FBI’s new Regional Forensics Computer Laboratory (RFCL) in Huntsville could collaborate with universities across the state. UAH, where we have a Cyber consortium, is already working closely with Redstone Arsenal. When we collaborate, we can fix things faster and learn best practices. We learned the lessons of collaboration ten years ago when we set up Cyber Huntsville.

Cyber Huntsville is a consortium of industry, government, and academia all working together to make Huntsville a center of excellence for Cyber Security. We’ve had some great successes:

  • We recruited an FBI Regional Forensics Computer Lab. Cyber crime is on the rise, yet most police departments lack the resources to handle. The RCFL will help build capacity for local law enforcement to respond to those issues. Until we successfully recruited this center, the closest one to Alabama was in Kentucky. This gives law enforcement a much-needed hand in addressing today’s crime.
  • Huntsville now hosts a national cyber symposium annually. What started off as a few hundred people from Huntsville quickly grew to encompass the South East Region and now the nation. Some of the best minds in cyber attend our symposium where they have technical tracks, managerial tracks, and academic tracks. We need more people talking and working together so that we can continue innovating and staying ahead of the cyber challenge.
  • Cyber Camp: I mentioned this Cyber Huntsville initiative earlier but it should be repeated. Our first cyber camp will be one of many. The state is already investing $10 million toward the camp’s capital needs, but it will take statewide support to help make this initiative sustainable for the long-term.

Vision for Alabama

We must prepare for the industries of tomorrow or risk being left behind. With a statewide cyber focus, we will be in a much better position to help write Alabama’s next chapter of economic development and prosperity.

We are not the only area looking at cyber. Right now, it’s the Wild West. Stake out your 40 acres and get ready to compete. Everyone else is.