Even as climate change exacerbates the risk around extreme weather, U.S. telecommunications giants AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. say technology upgrades and infrastructure investments have positioned the companies to better weather the coming storms.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be "above normal," producing between 13 and 19 named storms, versus the annual average of 12, according to forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. And beyond hurricanes, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information says there have already been 10 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion in 2020, well above the annual average of 6.6, despite it only being July.
Both Verizon and AT&T have been hit hard by storms in the past — particularly by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. And both companies have taken steps to prepare for this hurricane season, including readying portable cell sites and generators.
Beyond the standard yearly preparations, they have also deployed more and more fiber in recent years and virtualized their networks as part of the move to next-generation 5G service. Experts say these changes will make the networks more resilient in the face of natural disasters, but they also warn there is more work to be done, especially outside major urban areas.
From copper to fiber
When Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, it ravaged Verizon's wireline network in the Northeast and inundated the company's basement-level communications hubs in Manhattan.
"All of that coaxial cable located in the vault beneath Verizon's central office on Broad Street was saturated," Tony Grubesic, professor and associate dean for research in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview.
He noted that because coaxial cable lines use paper insulation, "The copper wiring draws water through the cabling like capillaries. So, even the cabling and equipment that was not impacted directly by the flood, got wet."
Rather than replacing the damaged line with new coaxial cables, which generally have a copper core, Verizon took the opportunity to convert it all to fiber. At the time, Verizon's then-CEO, Lowell McAdam, said Hurricane Sandy cost the telecom carrier $1 billion, with roughly half of that going toward capital expenditures.
Though the switch to fiber cost Verizon "a lot of money," Grubesic called it the smart long-term play given the likelihood of future storms.
"The climate models suggest that most places on the Atlantic seaboard will be impacted by larger storms in the coming decades. The same goes for places along the Gulf of Mexico like Houston, New Orleans and Tampa. At this point, coaxial cable is not really an option in disaster-prone areas," he said.
AT&T, which has also been deploying more fiber in recent years, explained that fiber is more resilient because transport occurs when light moves over the glass strands, meaning splice points do not require electronics. During copper transport, by contrast, an electronic signal moves through lines and splice points can be easily damaged by water.
According to the most recent estimates from Kagan, a research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, AT&T counted nearly 1.3 million global fiber route miles in 2019, while Verizon had just over 1.0 million.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said in May that Verizon is deploying between "1,500 and 2,000 route miles a month" as part of its plan to build out fiber in 60 cities outside the company's legacy fiber footprint. The fiber will be used to deliver faster wireline connections to local businesses and enterprises, as well as to support 5G wireless services. When fully implemented, 5G will offer download speeds many times faster than 4G LTE networks and usher in a new era of connectivity in terms of smart homes, offices and cities.
Fiber, however, is not invincible. When Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle in 2018, Verizon said the storm caused "unprecedented damage" to its fiber.
"In most cases, passive fiber systems are really rugged. The lines can be flooded [or] submerged and maintain operation," Grubesic said. "The problems and associated disruptions occur at the end faces where the fiber connects to other network devices. If that gets flooded, the system will usually suffer."
Beyond the move to fiber, Verizon and AT&T are engaging in a simultaneous shift to virtualize their networks — in other words, to make their physical networks software driven. Virtualization is essential for delivering 5G services because it allows a single physical network to be sliced into multiple virtual networks, each of which can support a range of different services.
But virtualization — according to Betsy Page Sigman, an expert in information systems and director of assessment and analytics for the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University — also gives network operators greater insight into their networks to see when a failure is likely.
"The equipment itself can signal," she said, noting this allows operators to re-route traffic to prevent service failures. "The networks keep getting better and better. And they have to because with 5G coming, billions of devices are going to be connected."
AT&T similarly said that the introduction of cloud-based platforms in support of software defined and virtualized networks, combined with the move to more fiber, have made networks more resilient.
"While there will still be a need for a physical recovery of lost capacity in the event of a catastrophic event, virtualization provides for greater business continuity," the company said in an emailed statement.
While 5G networks are more resilient than the networks of the past, Grubesic noted the deployment of 5G will be uneven across the country, leaving more rural communities at greater risk of service disruptions from extreme weather.
"In the U.S., we are definitely seeing more fiber, but only in the most competitive markets. This typically means urban areas," he said, adding that the cost of deploying fiber in less densely populated areas is often prohibitive for companies.
"The subscriber base is too small and the [return on investment] isn't there, unless there are government subsidies helping pay for the buildout," he said. "Further, because rural areas are often served by smaller carriers, their pockets simply are not deep enough to invest in the latest … technologies."