Just as COVID-19 ushered in an acceptance that broadband is essential, the concurrent era of a worsening climate crisis is also making clear just how vulnerable that critical infrastructure is.
From wildfires and extreme heat, to flash floods and hurricanes, the increasing effects of climate change are taking their toll on cables, fiber lines and wireless towers, leaving individual ISPs across the US to enact contingency and resiliency plans to avoid and reduce outages for customers and emergency services, and minimize damage to their own equipment.
According to the FCC, Hurricane Ida, which barreled down on Louisiana in late August, left an initial 500,000 without fixed Internet, a number that stands at just under 122,000 in the FCC's latest report.
Ryan Meche, executive director at LUS Fiber, a municipal fiber broadband provider in Lafayette, Louisiana, told Broadband World News that his service area was fortunately spared by Ida, but LUS was nevertheless prepared with specialized fiber crews stationed in hotel rooms, equipped with backup power and food supplies.
"Because we deal with hurricanes so often, we have a hurricane manual where we have all of our teams deployed," says Meche. "We have our backup generators fueled, we have extra gas and so we're always prepared for this."
In Grand County, Colorado, Eden Recor, owner of fixed wireless provider Grand County Internet Services, says he's also prepared for certain extreme weather events, including what he says are localized, massive winds that "take down huge amounts of trees" and the electrical power with it. "We have battery backups on almost all of our equipment to last at least six hours. If it's going to be a longer outage, we try to get out and put generators in to carry over until the power is turned back on," he says.
The company also had 70 customers lose service during Colorado's wildfire season last year.
"It took out four of my towers, and we had power off to a lot of our customers for almost a week and a half, two weeks. Not so much because the power was down but because they didn't want people to go back into the areas until we were sure that the fires were down and weren't going to re-erupt," says Recor.
Going forward, Recor says Grand County Internet Services is planning for resiliency by increasing batteries to withstand longer outages, as well as building "a lot of loops" in their circuits to have multiple paths to their broadcast points.
In Alaska, Francis LaChapelle, vice president of wholesale and carrier operations for local ISP MTA, says the company is watching and planning for the impacts of flooding, earthquakes and fires on network equipment; and telecommunications infrastructure that’s "reaching its breaking point sooner than expected."
"We know that some fiber-optic cable is not designed to be submerged in water at extended lengths, and we're also watching for the corrosion of cable connectors and similar equipment," says LaChapelle. "The USGS also has been tracking a slow-moving landslide in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, posing a threat to the undersea cables in that area.
"Additionally, just in recent years, the influx of wildfires in our area have tested our network."
One way MTA is planning for the future, says LaChapelle, is with its AlCan ONE all-terrestrial fiber line. "This type of fiber line is much less susceptible to weather disasters and will provide Alaska with a secure and reliable connection for decades," he says.
By and large, local ISPs are left to their own devices to establish resiliency plans in the face of climate change; a situation that may grow more complex as community-based providers take on a large share of the remaining broadband builds in rural and underserved areas of the US typically ignored by national ISPs.
"Network resilience is a crucial piece of Internet access that often gets overlooked. Developing reliable networks that support telecommunications in every state requires fiber or cable wireline that can survive storm surges and wireless antennas in wildfire prone areas that are able to withstand the extreme heat. Broadband infrastructure also relies on robust back-up power grids that have been tested before debilitating weather events," says Ryan Johnston, policy counsel for federal programs at Next Century Cities. "Too often, the resiliency planning process starts after a natural disaster has already decimated an area."
Richard Bernhardt, national spectrum adviser for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents 700-plus companies in the WISP industry, told Broadband World News that WISPA recognizes the need for unified resiliency planning at the industry-level and is in the process of creating a working group to that end.
In terms of recommendations, Bernhardt says ISPs need localized, regional and macro responses when climate emergencies occur, depending on the size of their network. He also stressed the need for updated equipment that can withstand environmental impacts like extreme heat, and monitoring tools that keep track of factors such as temperature so providers can track and respond to equipment problems in advance.
"Essentially you have to address your vulnerabilities," says Bernhardt. For example: "If your power happens to be attached to the grid, you've got a problem if that goes down. You might have a backup power system, a battery backup that will last six or eight hours, but that may not be sufficient. So maybe now you have to look at micro cells. You have to look at individualized power, using solar or some sort of immediate or localized backup system."
At the same time, he says, the interconnectedness of telecom networks, and reliance on electricity – on top of the critical nature of telecommunications networks for emergency services – means it's going to take a whole-of-industry approach to adequately address climate resiliency.
"Wireless doesn't mean wireless at every point. Some places it connects to copper. Some places it connects to RF microwave radio," says Bernhardt. "Anything mechanical, where there is a weak point, that's vulnerable. So you need to address the fact that copper wires on the lines deteriorate because you don't want to pay upkeep for those things."
While the federal government has ramped up efforts to accelerate broadband deployments, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, very few federal guidelines exist on network resilience.
As Darrick Kouns, chief of Puerto Rico's Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, testified to the FCC in February 2020, following Hurricane Maria, the best way to protect network communication would be to harden cellular infrastructure, but regulatory pressure is needed.
"It seems as if it would be common sense for carriers to be required to have sufficient backup energy systems in place to continue operations in times of disaster, or to provide temporary backhaul at key sites via alternative methods such as VSAT, however, there are no federal regulations stipulating the uptime or standard service level agreements that must be met by carriers to those customers they serve," said Kouns.
In a report published in March 2021 detailing multiple environmental disasters in the US and how communities responded to restore service, Next Century Cities' Johnston offers a series of recommendations urging federal entities to prioritize network resilience planning in policy. One of which is for the FCC to require providers to submit regional resiliency plans and to hold them accountable for noncompliance. This would be an improvement on the current rule which allows providers to submit network status data to the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau on a voluntary basis.
The report also urges the FCC not to "discriminate between which large-scale natural disasters that disrupt telecommunications networks should be documented." And it asks Congress and the FCC to provide resources to state and municipal governments to implement network resiliency measures to reduce the impact of environmental disasters.
"Since Congress and the FCC agree that resilience planning is essential, both should work to ensure funds as well as coordination and oversight are provided to accelerate restoration and bolster network resilience."
'All the homes were lost'
For small service providers, another impact of climate change is what happens to their clientele once a service area is destroyed.
Todd Way, CEO of Douglas Fast Net (DFN), a fiber provider in Oregon, told Broadband World News that last year's Labor Day fires burned 20 miles of the company's recently built service territory.
"We had just built it like the month prior," he says. "We finally got our federal permits, and we built it and it burned up." Way estimates the damage cost DFN $200,000, which he calls "pretty significant" for a small, local provider. Making matters worse, once it was safe to actually attend to their network damage, "there was really nobody to serve," says Way. "All the homes were lost in that part of the country."
Despite accelerating fires, and while it remains to be seen how many customers will return to the area, Way says the long-term plan to provide service there hasn't changed. Indeed, he notes that Douglas Fast Net has worked closely with the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to run gigabit fiber to the fire camps.
"It's kind of our mission, and we just need to be prepared."
A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.