The New Reality of Internet Resilience
An aging communications network has made us a candidate for internet disaster. Are we ready?
Welcome to the Information Age, where our livelihoods, healthcare, and national security are tethered to the internet. We have apps to find parking, land a job, and give ourselves an EKG, yet incredibly we find that in natural disasters, it’s gone. All of it: internet, phones, text messaging—even 911.
It may seem odd that in storm-ravaged communities, a Magic Marker and sheet of cardboard obviate all the electronic ingenuity of the past century. The problem is magnified for business and government, where the confluence of our growing dependence on data and the rise of extreme weather creates dire consequences for regional economies, public health and safety, and even national security.
Wide-scale outages, once mere blips of a few minutes or hours, now last days and weeks. Power outages have tripled in the past decade. The cost of business disruption is colossal and the threat grows exponentially with the rise of cloud computing. Today, businesses’ most mission-critical data lies on the tracks of Climate Change. If your ear is close enough, you can hear the whistleblowing.
The Threat Is Here: Extreme Weather
Latest research on climate and the internet focuses on sea-level rise, projected across decades. Yet a more-urgent threat is already here: extreme weather. Record-breaking floods, precipitation and heat are the new norm. Climate instability is worsening. Weather emergencies will eventually become an all-too-common occurrence. If we don’t adapt the internet to this reality, we’ll be sunk long before sea levels get us. The question is what to do, because left unchecked, losses will devastate all sectors, including health care, finance, hospitality, energy, water, transportation and national security.
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. Therefore, to understand the fix, let’s talk about how we access the internet.
Much of the more than 5.5 million miles of fiber power lines in the U.S. sit atop hundred-year-old towers, which makes them easy prey for storms and other disasters. Credit: olgalngs/iStock
The internet comes from internet data centers—thousands of them in the U.S. and worldwide. They’re home to carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, as well as cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google, and a myriad of others.
Internet data centers are “hardened” for a variety of threats, for which they’re certified and rated along a tier structure. Except for data centers in floodplains or hazard zones, most are able to ride out the worst storms.
Yet, a hardened data center isn’t much help if you can’t reach it, which brings us to the crux of the problem. Our journey to the internet is wholly dependent on physical cable (fiber optics).
While it seems that we live in a wireless world, smart phones and Wi-Fi operate only on the periphery of the internet, transmitting short distances before offloading their data to fiber. That conversion could be as close as your router, at your street corner or the nearest cell tower. The reason for it is that only fiber can support the volume of traffic in and out of data centers.
Fiber Fails In Extreme Weather
Fiber is strung on telephone poles (some call them “40-foot-high wooden sticks”) and snakes for endless miles underground—and is vulnerable to backhoes, vandalism and random casualties. Carriers know this, so they build redundancies with diverse routes, manholes and building entrances. But large-scale events, such as flooding, trounce those measures.
According to Paul Barford, professor of computer science at University of Wisconsin at Madison, much of the system was put into place in the 1990s, without much consideration of Climate Change. “On top of that, much of the internet’s physical infrastructure is aging,” Barton says. “A lot of it was designed to last only a few decades and is now nearing the end of its lifespan.”
It’s not only fiber that’s vulnerable to climate, but also the electrical grid it relies on. According to San Jose-based Bloom Energy, there are more than 5.5 million miles of transmission lines in the U.S.—many atop hundred-year-old towers. Predictably, the primary causes of blackouts are high winds and storms.
Want a shocking statistic? Power outages resulted in $11 trillion in damages between 2005 and 2020. Alone, it’s a colossal stat. But it’s even more daunting when you consider that the preceding 25 years saw “only” $600 billion in damages.
Internet Carriers Not Equipped for Climate Disruption
Internet resilience seems like a concern only for big carriers with billions in infrastructure, so we don’t think about it. And when we lose internet connection, we respond in the same way that we might to a power failure: we wait.
Yet, carriers are scarcely equipped for the onslaught of climate disruption, and needing them to save us is the worst place to be. In disasters, they’re inundated with work; dispatching contractors, bailing out cable vaults, going tree to tree, pole to pole, into manholes, and deploying emergency rigs quaintly referred to as “COWs” (cell on wheels) and “COLTS” (cell on light trucks).
It doesn’t matter who you are or how vital your data, you’re in the queue. As one responder put it after Hurricane Harvey, “We have the capability to bring back the network as quickly and safely as possible.” Translation: You’re out of luck, and it could be hours, days or weeks.
Meanwhile, states like California hold regular hearings with utility and telecom giants, but solutions are elusive. The fact is, monolithic providers have impossibly large carbon footprints and despite the public ire, it’s impractical to place all of the burden on them.
Internet resilience takes a different approach. Talk about internet resilience is always about protecting fiber. It recalls Maslow’s law: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
For that matter, forget satellite and cellular as well. Satellite has its own weather challenges. As for cellular, towers are prone to wind damage, and most have only eight hours of power backup. Many cell sites, such as church steeples and city buildings, have none at all.
The Solution: Millimeter Wave Wireless
Let’s say you’re desperate to catch a flight. The airport is open and your flight is on time, but a storm scattered debris everywhere, and all roads between you and the airport are impassable. You could throw up your hands, or if you had a helicopter with fuel, you could make the airport with time to spare.
Hence, our solution for internet resilience: An all-aerial service for vital data, independent of public power and infrastructure, which overcomes hurricanes, flooding, heatwaves, blizzards, sea-level rise; even terrorism.
Here’s how it works: The core of resilient internet is “millimeter wave” wireless. Carriers have used it for years. We use it to connect client networks, rooftop to rooftop, to a secure internet data center out of harm’s way. By that, we generally mean that it’s not in a hazard zone or a floodplain
Millimeter-wave is the closest wireless gets to fiber performance. It supports massive bandwidth—tens of gigabits per second—and it’s encrypted and HIPAA-approved. The downside is that it’s typically limited to about two miles, so for longer distances, we also use microwave radio.
Today, climate resilience is well suited for wireless, because it’s less about bandwidth and more about a critical lifeline.
As you might expect, stability of the wireless installation is paramount. The existing system isn’t very durable: antennas are just 1-2 feet in diameter and with transmitters, they weigh only about 20 pounds. The system is bolted to rooftops through structural concrete, brick or angle iron. Attachment hardware—heavy-duty galvanized steel—outweighs the dishes it supports. As long as the roof is standing, the client is getting internet.
Rooftops are best, but radio towers may be needed beyond city limits. Each such selection, however, must be scrupulously evaluated and/or upgraded for accessibility, generator capacity and wind loading. Resilience could therefore be as solid as from rooftops. However, I would rate tower installations as less than ideal.
Service in “the ‘I’ of the Storm”
What’s the service like? You’re looking at building-wide high-speed internet, with options for outdoor Wi-Fi (to cover a campus or plaza, for example). On the surface, it doesn’t appear to function any differently. Depending on threshold factors like distance, wireless performance on this new system may diminish in the heaviest storms.
We leverage microwave and millimeter wave for their respective strengths. For instance, microwave wins for distance, but millimeter wave delivers the highest bandwidth and scales the easiest for dense urban environments. Credit: Climate Resilient Internet
But while it’s conceivable that a five-gigabit connection could be throttled down by 50 percent in the eye of the storm, the impact is fleeting. Once the worst passes, service returns automatically to peak performance. In contrast, terrestrial cable could be unavailable for days.
Of course, resilient internet needs independent power, and not just for the wireless link—the internet also impacts in-building Wi-Fi, PCs, network and handheld devices, sensors, etc. For some, that will mean upgrading generator capacity.
Fortunately, we’re part of a booming industry of batteries, generators, and microgrids. Advances in those technologies can power internet access for days and weeks, depending on fuel service contracts and “islanding” capabilities for microgrids. As microgrids generate power apart from the grid, we generate internet apart from terrestrial infrastructure. The combination of sustainable power and uninterrupted internet is synergy at its best.
Microgrids are the future and resilient internet will fuel their adoption like nothing else. Resilient internet keeps the “smart” in smart grids (and smart cities).
You’ve probably heard of “smart grids” and “smart cities.” What makes them smart is the data they pull from the internet. Generally speaking, no internet means no metrics, stats or data-driven anything, and that poses a bleak scenario.
According to How Stuff Works senior writer and technology specialist Jonathan Strickland, smart grids could theoretically respond to customer needs better than our present network. But if the internet were to collapse, “a smart grid would be crippled. Massive power outages could become a problem across any country using such a system.”
Likewise, without internet, smart cities lose data-driven decision making for traffic, public safety, citizen engagement and other services. Therefore, internet resilience must be a key consideration for smart city infrastructure.
Resilient Internet Enhances Cyber Security
Intuitively, it would seem that data traveling over the air would be more vulnerable to interception than data contained in a wire, but not all wireless is the same. For instance, unlike omnidirectional antennas in cell phones, a millimeter wave transmits in a tight, point-to-point beam, about one-degree wide and high overhead.
Excess signal that might be intercepted is so wispy that it’s absorbed by oxygen. To hack a transmission of this nature would be like shooting a bullet with a bullet. Encryption makes the impossible that much harder.
As a rule, the greatest wireless bandwidth comes from point-to-point radios (“broadband wireless”), and those require line-of-sight between antennas. Some see that as a limitation. However, creative path engineering goes a long way.
For instance, before fiber optics, AT&T’s “Long Lines” microwave network spanned coast to coast with hundreds of interconnected radios. In my own experience, I once secured a continuous 700-mile wireless route between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (MERC) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for high-frequency trading.
It was one of the fastest data connections on earth, as described in the book, Flash Boys. What’s key to wireless expansion is that every link in the chain is solid, installed to best practices and engineered for worst case weather. Reliability is then maximized by electronic redundancies and diverse path routing.
And the best part: Resilient internet provides instant return on investment (ROI). Resilient internet pays for itself as ancillary bandwidth carrying everyday traffic, no different from fiber. It’s billed monthly, and the cost of resilience may be offset by eliminating an equivalent expense for extra fiber circuits. Resilient internet isn’t about adding bandwidth but about balancing risk. That said, cost savings from fiber may mean waiting for contracts to expire.
Climate readiness is an existential mandate for business and policy leaders, yet hardly anyone seems concerned about internet and data resilience. That’s stunning when you consider that data is the “world’s most valuable resource,” and that hardly any industry can survive without it.
I’ve attended dozens of climate conferences and never once heard a speaker on internet vulnerability. I’ve scanned scores of vulnerability assessments for critical infrastructure and hardly ever found the word “internet.”
It doesn’t appear once in a 56-page, blue-ribbon Bloomberg report, “The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the U.S.,” nor in similar publications. Which is a shame. The internet isn’t so complicated that the public can’t understand it, and neither is its vulnerability problem.
The best practices that I’ve detailed work. We’re not inventing new technology, but repurposing it according to new specifications, certified for extreme weather.
Climate-resilient internet is a return to a more symbiotic relationship between wireless and fiber; only now with wireless acting as lifeboats for the internet. In this new paradigm, the synergy of resilient power and data represents the greatest climate adaptation opportunity on earth.