Telecoms Providers Are Bracing for the Impact of Climate Change

June 11, 2019

By Rebecca Heilweil

Severe weather exacerbated by climate change could wreak havoc on the telecoms industry. Rising sea levels could drown underground cables and violent winds caused by more frequent hurricanes could send necessary, above-ground infrastructure tumbling.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars restoring our network after extreme weather events and natural disasters to much sure we can quickly serve our customers,” Nicole Anderson, the president of the AT&T Foundation and the assistant vice president of corporate social responsibility, told Cheddar. “It’s not just our business that’s impacted. Everyone’s impacted.”

The company believes that its infrastructure will be most endangered by increased flooding caused by greater volumes of rain, high-intensity winds, and coastal flooding caused by sea levels rising and hurricane surges.

To prepare, AT&T is now using supercomputers to build simulations ー called the “Climate Change Analysis Tool” ー of how climate change and extreme weather events will impact its infrastructure.

The company worked with the Argonne National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research center run by the University of Chicago.

Using flooding, weather, and coastline forecast data, AT&T is now able to investigate how its infrastructure ー or future infrastructure ー might fare given the impact of climate change. For instance, the model could predict what coastlines might be best, or worst, for new construction.

“It allows us to visualize the climate impact at the neighborhood level, and to 30 years into the future,” Anderson added. The predictions are available by the hour.

Building the system ultimately required more than 50 million computing hours, though Argonne’s systems were able to complete the project in a matter of months.

AT&T also says it can now cross-reference the location of its fiber cables with the projected levels of sea level rises up until 2060.

The tool is focused primarily on the American Southeast, which has experienced drastic hurricanes and flooding in the past few years. AT&T reports that the region has seen precipitation levels increased 27 percent since 1958.

Climate change is of increasing concern to telecoms providers. Oneanalysis from the U.S. General Services Administration found that climate change could impact telecoms in myriad ways. Higher temperatures and a growing number of heat waves will make it harder to keep equipment cool and increase rates of failure. Meanwhile, an increased number of storms could increase the incidents of lightning strikes, which can damage cables and cause power outages.

Just the shifting of weather patterns can also cause damage. The study reported that an early snowstorm from 2006 caused tree branches to break, which damaged power lines and ultimately led to about 93,000 telephone service disruptions over the course of a single month.

Meanwhile, a 2018 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that more than 4,000 fiber optic cabling will be submerged underwater.

Still, a Morning Consult survey commissioned by AT&T found that while most businesses saw climate change as a problem, less than a third had completed a climate risk assessment.

Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile did not respond to a request for comment on how climate change could impact their companies’ telecoms infrastructure by the time of publication.

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