Have you ever lost internet and cell service for a few hours? I can almost guarantee that weather was the reason. You drive around, find coffee and hope that you see utility trucks clearing trees and putting wires back up.
Now imagine that instead of hours, service stayed down for days and weeks. It’s a phenomenon we’re seeing with extreme weather. At first we thought these were singular events. Of course everything went down in Katrina. Then there was Sandy, but that was a Superstorm.
Sandy caused Manhattan and parts of New Jersey to lose internet for weeks. Later, we saw the same thing in Miami with Irma. Then in Houston with Harvey. Now last summer it was Connecticut and Long Island with Isaias, a much smaller storm. And it should be noted that rain, wind and flooding aren’t the internet’s only assailants. Heat and wildfires are causing massive internet disruptions in the West.
These are dramatic events for sure, but internet infrastructure is more vulnerable than we think. In fact, if you look at power outages alone, internet blackouts have more than tripled this decade over last.
Why should you care?
- Extreme weather is a growing trend for the foreseeable future.
- The critical infrastructure our society relies on—energy, healthcare, transportation, wastewater treatment, sanitation… even national security—can’t function without data.
- No one seems to recognize the problem of weather-related internet vulnerability—not insurers, climate activists or even IT professionals—though the cumulative cost is staggering.
- There’s a solution and its advancement is vital to a more resilient future.
Think of the irony.
It’s the Digital Age. We have smartphones, Wi-Fi enabled blenders, thermostats and watches that perform EKGs, but when we’re most desperate to communicate—like in a life threatening situation—we’re reduced to spray paint and Magic Markers. Visitors from the Middle Ages would shake their heads.
Remember when oil was the world’s most valuable resource ?
We protected it by going to war. Today, according to The Economist, data is the world’s most valuable resource, yet it’s laid bare to the elements and with no one to blow up over it, we seem helpless.
Hence the term, “Acts of God”. Even lawyers cut us slack there, because the idea is that we’re faced with a problem beyond our anticipation or ability to control. But let me assure you, the reality here is different.
We do have warning with extreme weather. Climate scientists are sounding the alarm every day. Moreover, while Acts of God are unavoidable, we *do* have the ability to prevent critical internet outages from happening.
If you wonder why no one has addressed the problem of internet vulnerability before, it’s because numbers are (purposely) elusive.
For instance, if you’re an engineer wanting to assess internet vulnerability, you’re almost certain to throw in the towel. Numbers scarcely exist, nor could you assemble them if you tried. The reason is simple. There’s no requirement for carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, to publicly report the cause, scale or duration of internet outages.
Consequently, actionable figures are as fleeting as the morning dew, thwarting vulnerability assessments that engineers routinely perform for all other critical infrastructure, like energy, transportation and wastewater treatment. You can check out independent sites like DownDetector, and it’s great that folks like that are trying to keep score, but data there is more indicative than it is accurate and comprehensive.
Still, if you observe a tree falling in the woods, then you don’t need an official report from the U.S. Forestry Service to convince you of it. Likewise, it’s no secret that major U.S. cities have lost internet for weeks and though no one ever tallied the cost of data disruption, it’s fair to say that every incident was devastating.
What’s the actual problem?
The internet is a mystery to us. We don’t know where it is or how we get to it. It’s hard to address vulnerabilities we can’t visualize, so let’s talk about how we access the internet.
The internet comes from internet data centers, thousands of them in the U.S. and worldwide. They’re home to carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, as well as cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and myriad others.
Internet data centers are hardened for a multitude of threats, for which they’re certified and rated along a tier structure. Except for those built in floodplains or hazard zones, most can ride out even the worst storms. Yet a hardened data center isn’t much help if you can’t reach it, and so now we come to the crux of the problem.
Your smartphone and Wi-Fi isn’t so wireless.
While it seems that we live in a wireless world, our journey to the internet is entirely dependent on physical cable, namely fiber optics. Smartphones and Wi-Fi operate only on the periphery of the internet, transmitting short distances before their data is offloaded to fiber. That could happen as close as your router, at your street corner or the nearest cell tower. The reason for the switch from wireless to fiber, is that only fiber can support the volume of traffic going in and out of internet data centers.
We need fiber for capacity, but it fails the test of extreme weather.
Fiber depends on the electric grid, which is aging and also vulnerable to weather. Adding to this primary vulnerability, fiber is strung across utility poles (“40-foot high wooden sticks”) and snakes through endless miles of underground, the whole of which is fodder to backhoes, vandalism and random casualties.
Carriers and their larger clients know this, and so they build redundancies with diverse fiber routes, backup data centers and north-south building entrances, but for wide scale events, like flooding, fiber is a single point of failure. Putting more fiber in the ground achieves no greater resilience to weather.
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”.
Today 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 tossing paper towels at 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. The future demands resilience.
Disaster recovery means catastrophic losses have already occurred. Achieving internet resilience means the solution is baked-in, seamless and integrated in the fabric of our infrastructure.
So, what *is* the solution?
Surprisingly, it’s not new a technology, but it’s based on a wireless concept from the 1950’s and 60’s, reimagined. Just as hipsters and purists have rediscovered the turntable, this classic technology is finding relevance in a new age.
So for instance, before fiber optics, if you made a long-distance phone call, chances are that it was transmitted across a system called “AT&T Long Lines.” It consisted of wireless stations — microwave radio to be exact — that sat on the rooftops of all phone company central offices and dotted the landscape on mammoth towers.
The solution for internet resilience is a similar concept, except:
- It’s scaled down for local coverage.
- Backed by generators or microgrids for indefinite operation.
- Updated with new specifications for climate change.
Resilient internet overcomes power outages and terrestrial damage:
Now, instead of terminating at a phone company central office, we’re going to the roof of a hardened, 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.
To learn more about the wireless tech, what it consists of and how it’s deployed, check out my white paper.
But, what about the bandwidth problem?
Internet resilience is like lifeboats for data. It’s not there to save everything, but to maintain sufficient access for mission critical applications, supply lines and business continuity. While bandwidth may be upwards of 40–50 gigabits, it’s never going to compare with fiber and so wireless functions as a complement, not a replacement.
What’s the cost and how is it paid?
Here’s the best part. Unlike a lot of infrastructure resilience propositions, this one is light on capital and as easy as leasing a fiber circuit. Installation is typically 2–3 days, following a 90-day design and planning cycle, and service is billed monthly, according to bandwidth needs. Where it applies to the public sector, bottlenecks would not be about moving the will of the people.
As for return on investment, the wireless component doesn’t sit idle, but passes data, day and night, alongside fiber—sharing the load—so it pays for itself with regular use. The proposition is about balancing fiber and wireless assets, rather than overspending on fiber, following the old notion that the more of it you have, the safer you are.
Our most mission 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, don’t let the internet go down on your watch. Learn more about new, industry Certified, Climate Resilient Internet, read my white paper, and let me know what you think.
About the Author
David Theodore is co-founder & CTO of Climate Resilient Internet (CRi). He has a penchant for innovation that brought the world’s first wireless internet solution. It put millions on the internet in the years before Wi-Fi, advancing tele-radiology and distance learning, supporting NASA and the Space Shuttle mission, and giving world leading institutions their first internet access.
About Climate Resilient Internet
We’re climate activists and wireless leaders on a mission to climate-proof the internet. It’s founded on a vision for new best practices that’s advancing as an industry-wide certification for internet resilience delivered worldwide.
We support sustainable, green energy and incentivize its deployment in CRi installations. If you’re a microgrid provider or planning to deploy a microgrid, talk to us.