Nov 25, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Wireless' next challenge is climate change

Illustration of a cell phone with an umbrella on the screen, surrounded by sandbags.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Wireless companies whose networks are threatened by hurricanes, floods, fires and other extreme weather are rebuilding to withstand repeat disasters and factoring climate change into their long-term planning.

The big picture: While partisan disputes deadlock federal action on climate change, companies are preparing for it as a reality that is affecting their future services as well as their bottom lines.

What they're saying: "The most important thing is making sure the decisions today are anticipating what tomorrow brings, and that tomorrow may be a long way away," said Scott Mair, AT&T president of technology and operations.

What to watch: Wireless companies are using modeling tools to predict future weather events decades out, as their concerns about the impacts of climate change rise.

  • "We saw, like many did, the intensity of storms and frequency of storms were picking up as a result of climate change," said Verizon's Brian Trosper, vice president of maintenance engineering. "We said we needed to come up with a more forward-looking model."

Where it stands: This year, Verizon began using the risk-analysis data used by insurance companies in its own model of how climate changes affects its network assets.

  • Meanwhile, AT&T joined with the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory this year to create a climate change tool that predicts impacts 30 years out. Right now the model covers four southeastern states, but the area could expand.
  • AT&T uses the model for everything from where to build cell sites to how to place fiber to where to put critical infrastructure.
  • "The climate change tool model will tell us water levels from rivers or hurricane-prone areas," Mair said. "It’s generally a matter of a foot or two, but that foot or two means the difference between service or no service down the road a few decades from now."

What's happening now: Wireless companies also review what worked and what didn't after every disaster to adjust their rebuilding plans.

  • After flooding during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Verizon added stilts to raise equipment that powers cell sites, and after Hurricane Michael hit Florida in 2018, the company put its new fiber underground in Panama City, rather than using aerial fiber.
  • AT&T took the widespread flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 into account as it rebuilt infrastructure, elevating equipment and adding berms.
  • After Hurricane Maria, AT&T had to start from scratch in rebuilding its network in parts of Puerto Rico and chose to bury fiber and use more steel rather than wood poles to better withstand high winds.
  • T-Mobile declined an interview request but said in a statement that the company has focused on building a resilient network through "hardened backup power" at towers and a fleet of rapid response vehicles to restore network coverage.

As for the wildfires in California, both Verizon and AT&T say the preemptive power outages were more problematic than fire damage.

  • The companies said they relied on generators to keep cell sites running during PG&E's frequent and widespread preventive power shutdowns. But reports to the FCC in October indicated hundreds of cell sites were not functioning as California residents complained about losing wireless service.
  • "We don’t have a full map of where there is back-up power and where there is not, but when we have long and widespread outages like we saw in California, we’ve got to realize that people are not going to be able to call 911," Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. "We are making a crisis worse without having policies to help people out by ensuring there’s some back-up power and communications stays working."

Between the lines: The private sector's climate preparation comes without much action from the federal government.

  • "We've got rising seas, extreme climate events and outages like we’ve seen in California with wildfires," Rosenworcel said. "As a nation, we have to start thinking about what changes do we make to our infrastructure policies to ensure everyone can stay connected when disaster strikes. On that score, I think the the FCC has serious work to do."
  • She said the FCC should update its network outage reporting system by including broadband outages, and update a voluntary framework that wireless companies formed for disaster recovery to make commitments enforceable. That framework is under review by the agency.
  • The FCC has an advisory committee studying disaster response and recovery, and it has also linked subsidies meant to aid in rebuilding networks in Puerto Rico to resiliency measures.
  • But the commission doesn't regulate how wireless companies must respond or prepare for disasters.
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