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How wireless operators are preparing their networks for climate change

From hardening cell site structures to clearing combustible materials away from towers, telecom companies are looking to minimize the impact of disasters on their networks.

Sue Marek

February 15, 2022

4 Min Read
How wireless operators are preparing their networks for climate change

With the rise in climate-related disasters – from floods to wildfires – US wireless companies have to rethink how they build and expand their networks so that they are less susceptible to damage.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the US experienced 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in 2021, making it the second-highest year for disasters after 2020, when there were 22 different billion-dollar weather and climate-related events.

Understandably, this rise in weather disasters is a concern for wireless operators. Not only do they have an imperative to keep their networks running during disasters because they serve as a lifeline to those impacted, but they also have invested billions in building these networks and want to protect their investments.

Figure 1: (Source: Peter Cripps / Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: Peter Cripps / Alamy Stock Photo)

One way wireless companies are trying to get on top of climate change is by using predictive modeling tools to tell them where climate change might most impact their networks. For example, AT&T worked with the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to develop a Climate Change Analysis Tool (CCAT) that projects flooding and winds in the Southeastern US over the next 30 years.

According to Shannon Carroll, associate VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, Citizenship and Sustainability at AT&T, the CCAT data is used in network planning. For example, in areas where there might be flooding, AT&T can use that data to schedule how often and when the company should conduct maintenance checks on certain facilities. Or, it can use the data to determine where equipment should be placed in a central office or other types of facilities.

The CCAT data is also used in the construction of AT&T's 5G network to help network engineers decide where to put cell sites, lay fiber or deploy small cells. Carroll said that the company can use the CCAT to cross-reference its fiber locations with the sea-level rise in the year 2060. "This will help us make smarter financial decision-making by mapping risky areas for new build plans – offering anywhere from 10-year to 100-year return periods of climate change risk," Carroll said.

But the CCAT data also helps AT&T with more immediate decisions. Carroll said that the company's disaster recovery team uses the data to anticipate where to place things like generators so they are close to areas where climate-related events are likely to occur.

And it is also being used at the corporate level so that AT&T can determine where to put corporate offices, parking structures or other facilities.

But AT&T isn't alone. Verizon uses different types of data to help it determine where to put its 5G network assets. The company told the Wall Street Journal in August that it was using artificial intelligence (AI) modeling to determine where to place its 5G wireless transmitters for the best performance. While much of Verizon's AI modeling is primarily intended for coverage, there are AI solutions available to help operators reduce maintenance visits and limit their energy usage.

Figure 2: A Verizon tower is surrounded by damage from Hurricane Michael. (Source: Verizon) A Verizon tower is surrounded by damage from Hurricane Michael. (Source: Verizon)

Plus, wireless operators often use data from past disasters to help them evaluate what worked and what didn't work, and adjust their network planning for the future. For example, Verizon added stilts to its cell sites after flooding during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and now has cell sites on stilts in many waterfront areas.

FCC's involvement

The FCC is also concerned about how wireless networks respond to weather-related disasters. It recently began soliciting comments on ways to improve the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework that was drafted in 2016 and signed by several US mobile operators, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, UScellular, Southern Linc and GCI.

Essentially, the voluntary framework said that operators would work together and share information during and after disasters. It also said they would help with public awareness of impending events, increase consumer preparedness and provide roaming and mutual aid to customers.

But now, the FCC wants to see if the resiliency framework can be improved and strengthened and, in particular, whether the public would benefit from it being more than just a voluntary arrangement.

Included in this is whether the government should mandate the use of backup power generators at all cell sites. Both AT&T and Verizon have pushed back against this type of mandate, and so have organizations like the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which said in its comments that "imposing backup power generator mandates at every cell site would be ill advised and impractical." Instead, the WIA advocates for using network monitoring tools, network traffic management and supplemental antennas such as Cells on Wheels to restore networks quickly.

— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.

About the Author(s)

Sue Marek

Special Contributor

Follow Sue on Twitter @suemarek

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