Telecommunication operators and natural disasters

By Baptiste Leon | June 10, 2022

Over the last 50 years, the number of natural disasters per year has multiplied more than five times, going from 70 to 360 major annual events worldwide. Driven by climate change, this risk threatens dire consequences for telecommunications operators. In the last 5 years, AT&T alone lost $850 million due to infrastructure damage caused by natural disasters.

To provide stable services to customers, limit economic losses, and in the most extreme cases allow coordination of rescue efforts, networks must become resilient. Several US operators — including AT&T, Verizon, and Consolidated Communications — are already trying to figure out solutions.

Orange Silicon Valley, NVIDIA, Balcony Labs, and Orange Business Services have joined forces to create a rapid disaster detection and response approach based on AI. It is a crucial advancement in the protection of people and infrastructure.

Protecting the backbone of telecommunications

The backbone of every communication network is its cables and equipment connecting. The last 20 years witnessed an important boom in the use of fiber optics able to transmit information by light rather than electricity. The technology can increase the quality of Internet access and better resist as explained by Verizon spokesperson Karen Schulz. Fiber optics are also easier to monitor, and failures can be detected more efficiently. However, it is not a cure-all.

Indeed, according to UW-Madison professor Paul Barford, co-author of a report on this subject, “All of this equipment is meant to be weather-resistant-but it’s not waterproof … Much of the system was put into place in the ’90s without much consideration of climate change.” Projections for New York City indicate 20% of fiber networks will be flooded within 15 years. The rest of the equipment must also be adapted because of the desirability of replacing copper with fiber optics.

Strategizing remedies

Beyond the choice of hardware for wired networks, the resilience of mobile networks and their power supplies is essential. A first option would be to set up battery backups and redundant generators. However, this does not lessen telecom operators’ reliance on the public power grid.

One approach comes from Aradatum, a Michigan-based Infratech tower company, which provides solutions for self-powering 4G and 5G networks using wind turbines, solar panels, and in some cases generators. Developed primarily for hard-to-reach locations with limited access to the electrical grid, their strategy can also decentralize the energy sources of telecom networks. However, Aradatum cannot yet power macro cellular antennas that cover large areas, as their power consumption is about 15,000 watts. Aradatum can power the small cells of distributed 5G networks, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks, and microwave repeaters that are used as a backhaul instead of fiber.

The deployment of these technologies will take time and will not guarantee resistance to all types of disasters. AT&T announced in May 2022 the upgrade of its flying COW (Cell on Wings) system with 5G antennas. This solution allows recreating a cellular network very quickly thanks to drones designed for extreme conditions that are interconnected using millimeter waves. The 5G will provide exceptionally low latency connections to a larger number of simultaneous users compared to 4G. In the event of a natural disaster, there are many use cases — obtaining live videos of the situation on the ground; monitoring and guiding the progress of emergency services; and sending detailed instructions to the population in real time.

Dealing with the new normal

These rapid disaster response issues represent a market that will exceed $150 billion in the next 5 years. They are therefore also opportunities for business and innovation. AT&T is the operator behind the FirstNet solution, which is a secure network dedicated to first responders under the aegis of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the field of software solutions, Balcony Labs has developed an AI-powered mobile and web platform that enables decision-makers to communicate bi-directionally with individuals at locations of interest, verify the situation, and act on geo-precise information in real time.

Finally, the ability to forecast should be another key component of a resilience plan. In partnership with the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, AT&T’s chief sustainability officer Charlene Lake announced the implementation of a statewide tracking and forecasting system for floods, hurricanes, and storms. According to Scott Mair, AT&T’s president of operations, “Historically, we’ve taken into consideration where flooding might impact us. But it has always been based on history.”

As operators search for innovative solutions, we must focus on understanding an uncertain future with new parameters that our predecessors did not consider. This is where the collaboration between Orange Silicon Valley, NVIDIA, Balcony Labs, and Orange Business Services can have an important impact. By developing a satellite-based flood detection AI solution that can be deployed at the edge, it becomes possible to monitor the entire globe and predict in advance the regions likely to be affected by flooding. Several experiments are underway with public institutions and will be communicated in the coming months. Stay tuned!