Imagine if your region lost internet, cloud and cell service for days and weeks. Hospitals couldn’t operate. Transportation would come to a halt. Schools and businesses would close and economic losses would be staggering. It’s not a far-fetched scenario, but a mounting reality of extreme weather.
We’re well aware of the dramatic cases. Hurricane Sandy caused weeks of outages in Manhattan and parts of New Jersey. The same happened in Miami with Irma; then in Houston with Harvey. In July 2020, it was Long Island’s turn with Isaias, a much smaller storm.
And weather-related outages don’t stop at rain, wind and storm surge. Heat waves kill internet access when the grid fails. Ice storms brought the internet down for millions of Texans last February and wildfires bring repeated disruptions out West.
In short, our internet infrastructure is more vulnerable than we think. And what’s worse is that it’s hard to quantify the problem, because major carriers don’t publish outage statistics. Yet, if you look at energy sector reports on grid outages, internet blackouts have more than tripled this decade over last. Imagine what the next decade will bring.
Why should we care?
The implications are colossal, considering our migration to cloud computing and the fact that our most critical infrastructure runs on data. Consequently, we’re in a place where disaster recovery is already too late for mission critical purposes. Instead, where the Digital Age confronts climate change, resilience must be our aim and that’s the subject of this paper.
What makes the internet so vulnerable?
The internet is a mystery to us. We don’t know where it is or how we get to it. It’s hard to tackle problems we can’t visualize, so let’s talk about how we access the internet.
The internet comes from internet data centers, thousands of them across the U.S. and worldwide. They’re home to carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, as well as cloud service providers like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and myriad others.
Internet data centers are hardened for a multitude of threats, for which they’re certified along a tier structure, rated from 1 to 4. Except for data centers built on floodplains or hazard zones, most can ride out even the worse storms. Yet a hardened data center is hardly useful if you can’t get to it, and so now we come to the crux of the problem.
While it seems that we live in a wireless world, our internet access is entirely dependent on fiber optic cable.
Smartphones and Wi-Fi operate only at the far reaches of the internet, spanning short distances before their data is offloaded to fiber. The switch to fiber could happen at your router, down the street or at the nearest cell tower. The reason for the switch is that only fiber can handle the density of traffic going in and out of internet data centers.
We need fiber for capacity, but it fails the test of extreme weather.
Fiber is strung across telephone poles (“40-foot high wooden sticks”) and snakes through endless miles of underground, the whole of which is fodder for extreme weather. Moreover, fiber infrastructure relies on the electric grid, which itself is aging and vulnerable to extreme weather.
To this day, internet access is protected by fiber, fiber, and more fiber. We have redundant conduits, diverse cable routes and backup data centers, but for wide scale events—like flooding—fiber is a single point of failure. Putting more of it in the ground achieves no greater resilience.
Our trip to the internet is underground and across telephone poles:
According to Paul Barford, professor of computer science at UW-Madison: “Much of the system was put into place in the ‘90s without much consideration of climate change. On top of that, much of the internet’s physical infrastructure is aging. A lot of it was designed to last only a few decades and is now nearing the end of its lifespan.”
And forget “disaster recovery”.
When weather strikes, phone companies wheel out “COWS” (cell on wheels) and “COLTS” (cell on light trucks). Certainly they’re trying, but with demand being what it is, that’s the internet equivalent of paper towels for hurricane victims.
We’re facing the most epic collision of the Digital Age; the rise of critical data in the crosshairs of climate change. Disaster recovery is yesterday’s answer.
Disaster recovery doesn’t prevent catastrophic losses, it follows them. Achieving internet resilience means the solution is baked-in, seamless and part of the primary fabric of internet infrastructure. It’s available all the time, especially when we need it.
So, what *is* the solution?
Surprisingly, it’s not new technology, but it’s based on a wireless concept first deployed by AT&T in the 1950’s. It was called, “AT&T Long Lines”, and it spanned the entire U.S., carrying our long distance communications, national news broadcasts and sensitive military data.
The network was so critical, it was built to be impervious to weather and even to withstand a nuclear detonation. I have a tie to this, because in the late 1980’s, I founded Microwave Bypass, which built on that tech for the first wireless internet access, putting millions on the internet when fiber was scarce.
Internet resilience is based on a similar wireless platform:
- Scaled for local coverage.
- Backed by power generators or microgrids for indefinite operation.
- Updated with new specifications for climate change.
Internet resilience is like lifeboats for mission critical data:
Internet resilience uses certified climate-proof hardware and installation practices, bypassing terrestrial fiber and the electric grid to connect a client from their rooftop to the safety of a secure, hurricane-rated internet data center. Once there, it’s like arriving at an airport where you’ve got a myriad of available routes to continue your journey.
For more on the wireless tech, what it consists of and how it’s deployed, check out my white paper.
But, what about the bandwidth problem?
Resistance to this concept has largely been about bandwidth concerns. In early interviews, a leading Boston healthcare conglomerate (in a floodplain) expressed that they looked at wireless before, but decided against it because it could only handle a fraction of their 100 gigabit backbone. My response was that lifeboats on the Titanic couldn’t take the napkins and silverware, but they saved 700 people.
Internet resilience isn’t about saving everything. It’s about sustaining mission critical operations in the days and weeks where fiber may be compromised. Wireless bandwidth may never compare to fiber, but at 30–40 gigabits, it can bridge the gap like nothing else.
What’s the cost and how is it paid?
Here’s the best part. Internet resilience is a monthly expense, not a heavy capital project. Remarkably, in the majority of cases, it won’t add a dollar to existing budgets.
Climate resilience is about balancing telecom risk, similar to balancing risk in an asset portfolio. Accordingly, we recommend reallocating a small portion of existing fiber expenditures to fund the resilience channel. Meanwhile, the return on investment isn’t just about climate intervention. Unlike traditional backup, resilient internet doesn’t sit idle, but complements fiber, passing data day and night and paying for itself with regular use.
Typical installation is 2–3 days, following a 90-day design and planning cycle.
Our most critical data lays in the tracks of climate change, and if your ear is close enough you can hear the whistle blowing. Left unchecked, losses will devastate every sector of our society.
If you’re responsible for public safety, healthcare, corporate fortunes or national security, learn more about *Certified CRi* and don’t let the internet go down on your watch.
About the Author
David Theodore is a Boston-based climate activist, co-founder of Climate Resilient Internet (CRi) and chair of WISPA’s Climate Action Working Group. In 1988, he developed the world’s first wireless internet solution, extending access to millions of users at elite institutions, capturing a 75% market share in the years before Wi-Fi.
About Climate Resilient Internet
We’re climate activists and wireless leaders advancing an industry-wide certification for internet resilience to climate change.
We support sustainable, green energy and incentivize its deployment in Certified CRi installations. If you’re a microgrid provider or planning a microgrid, talk to us!
To learn more, visit our website.