Low-lying areas along the East Coast of the United States are already seeing the results of climate change frequently. Water levels are encroaching on streets and sidewalks during high tides, and flooding during storms is happening more often. That flooding is exacerbated by more frequent storms.
It’s become bad enough that during a recent visit to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I had to walk to dinner through ankle-deep water caused by the tides from a full moon. Meanwhile, climate change is melting ice at the poles, causing sea levels to rise even more.
So what does all of this have to do with the internet? Actually, it has to do with the fiber that the internet uses to carry the data. In a number of major metropolitan areas, especially along the East Coast–but also in places along the Gulf Coast–water levels are already getting high enough to threaten the underground fiber installations that carry the internet’s traffic.
Internet transmission equipment is at risk
While water levels won’t hurt the fiber bundles themselves–they’re well-protected, after all–what the water will hurt is the transmission equipment that supports the fiber. Unless the equipment is designed to work in a wet environment, that part of the internet will go down. While the internet itself is designed to work around damaged portions, the businesses served in the affected areas also will be without their network services.
Unfortunately, the rising sea levels are only part of the problem. “Record-breaking floods, precipitation and heat are the new norms, and all indications are that climate is in a worsening trend,” said David Theodore, co-founder and CTO of Climate Resilient Internet. “If we don’t adapt internet infrastructure to this reality, we’ll be sunk long before sea levels get us.”
At first look, it would seem that the best way to adapt your infrastructure might be to use the 5G communications that the wireless industry has been bragging about lately. After all, millimeter-wave wireless is blazingly fast, has very low latency, and may have enough capacity to provide an acceptable alternative to your existing fiber. But there’s a problem, which is that the wireless companies may use that same fiber infrastructure.
If the networks go down, so do many businesses
It may not seem like a catastrophe that you might not be able to get to the internet, but if you’re like most companies, you’ve moved a lot of your operations to the public cloud, which means that you’re storing your data and likely many of your most important applications in a place where they’re inaccessible when the internet is out. It may also be that your website and most of your commerce pass through the internet. When the internet is out, you’re out of business.
So what do you do? There are two options, and you should consider doing both:
- First, check with your carrier to see whether your fiber is protected against natural events that include storms and sea-level rise. This might take some doing, because there’s a pretty good chance that the customer service staff at whatever company provides your connection to the outside world won’t know. You’ll probably have to talk to the engineering staff and ask some pointed questions. While you’re asking those questions, make sure to ask about more than whether the fiber is safe from inundation, but also whether the power that runs the amplifiers and other transmission equipment is protected. Note that this is more than a yes-or-no answer. You’ll need to make sure that there’s an ongoing source of power, not just a battery backup.
- The other option is to consider another medium for carrying your data. Theodore said that microwave links make the most sense for most companies. Of course, you remember the days when many buildings had a collection of microwave dishes on the roof. These dishes may have been aimed at other offices or at a telephone or data carrier. They worked well and were a reliable form of communication.
What they weren’t was a high-bandwidth connection. On the other hand, they didn’t depend on sources of power other than at each end of the connection. In most cases, they were far enough above ground that any flooding was far below them, and storms usually didn’t bother them. And, unlike satellite communications, there was no real latency problem and no rain fade.
Adding alternatives cost … wait for it … money
Newer technology can allow microwave communications with more bandwidth and more capacity. But for that to work, companies have to put those dishes back on the roof, and that costs money.
It also requires a reliable source of electrical power. Theodore advocates for microgrids as a solution to the power problem, which would effectively make each building its own grid. The question then becomes: How many companies are willing to prepare for the climate change that’s coming, and then spend the money now to ensure that they stay in operation?
Certainly there are other options as well. Moving to higher ground is one. Redundant access to different power grids is another, and so are redundant connections to the internet. All have their weaknesses and strengths.
But one thing seems certain: Your connection to the internet may be at risk, and once that happens, it’s too late to do anything about it.
[Image caption: Rising tides along the River Walk in Naperville, Ill. are becoming more common in recent years.]