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Amid the push toward smart cities, AT&T gets smarter about climate change

➤ Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing top U.S. wireless operators.

➤ AT&T has teamed up with public and private partners as it bolsters the systems and infrastructure around its networks against climate-related risks.

➤ As smart cities and ubiquitous connectivity become commonplace, there is a greater need for resilient networks to power those next-generation technologies.

Two years ago, AT&T Inc. launched its Climate Resiliency Community Challenge that provided $50,000 in funding apiece for five private southeast colleges and universities — Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Georgia, Appalachian State University, the University of Miami and the University of South Florida — to collaborate with municipalities in evaluating and assessing climate change risks. The participants utilized regional climate modeling data commissioned by AT&T from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to further their research.

SNL ImageAT&T Director of Global Environmental Sustainability Shannon Carroll
Source: AT&T

Now, as the world races to adopt next-generation technologies, AT&T faces a new but related challenge: building out networks that are tough enough to withstand the many demands of cities and towns filled with smart cars, smart homes and smart buildings that all rely on ubiquitous connectivity and lightning-fast speeds.

S&P Global Market Intelligence recently sat down with AT&T Director of Global Environmental Sustainability Shannon Carroll, who provided an update on the company's Climate Resiliency Community Challenge and discussed what is next for the company as it builds out its networks of the future.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: Could you talk a bit about AT&T's Climate Resiliency Community Challenge, including some of your most recent initiatives and top partners in the project?

Shannon Carroll: AT&T recognizes that climate change is one of the world's most pressing challenges. It affects, for us, not only our customers but our employees as well and the communities in which we operate. And that's why it's really important that we work on all different climate change-related issues, including reducing our own emissions as we transition to our carbon neutral goal and just becoming more resilient.

Specific to the community challenge, [the participants are] a part of our community as well. We asked those universities to conduct research on climate change, risk and resilience, using [AT&T's] unique data set. And we actually funded $250,000 across five of those universities. We actually released reports on each one of these projects.

Those reports highlight how they're using the data to help cities, counties, states in the southeast better anticipate and prepare for climate change, which is important, right? Because climate change is not something you do in a vacuum, and we've said this a lot — it doesn't do AT&T any good to be climate resilient in and of ourselves. We need everybody to be climate resilient.

How do you think AT&T's public/private partnerships have enhanced the company's climate resiliency efforts? Why isn't it enough to just build a resilient network?

We're always looking to collaborate with others on climate change. Again, we all need to be resilient so we can all thrive in the future. That's very important. Whether it's through the community challenge and the work that these various universities have done or if it's just the fact that we are working with Argonne National Laboratory to develop the climate change analysis tool itself.

That's the first-in-its-industry tool. It gives us the ability to take the best climate data available, overlay that with our company assets, and have that visualization for our network engineers and others that they can now sit at their desk, look at their areas of responsibility, click on those areas and actually get the climate change impact that's going to affect whatever equipment they're responsible for, whatever area they're responsible for. So they can look at flooding, they can look at windspeeds associated with hurricanes.

And in the near future, we're also going to have the ability to look at drought and wildfire [data].

What have been some of the biggest challenges with forming and maintaining these partnerships?

As we look to collaborate, we recognize that climate risk is very localized. So think about, even within a one- or two-mile area, the local topography can vary, which results in different levels of risk. So we want to make sure that we're collaborating with folks that get that inherent challenge within the climate impacts as well. It's a challenge just from the fact that there's no one simple lever that you can pull to drastically improve resilience. It takes a lot of different things, a lot of different people coming together, working in that collaborative manner.

As the world races to adopt next-generation technologies, including ubiquitous connectivity and smart cities, how does the challenge of network resiliency and redundancy change?

It's something that we're very much aware of. Making our network more resilient is critical for millions of customers who rely on the connectivity we provide. I think that's crystal clear, right? This includes hundreds of thousands of connections AT&T enables across smart cities.

And when we think of smart cities and use cases, we think about metering, lighting, parking. There's lots of opportunity there. That's why I'll go back to the importance of making our climate data available to everybody, including local and state governments that have a say in building smart cities. Again, we just look for continued opportunities to make those communities and smart communities more resilient.

How do these efforts enhance AT&T's competitiveness, either with consumers, businesses, first responders or other segments?

Specific to our own climate resiliency, we definitely see this as a competitive advantage. Our customers including consumers themselves, businesses, first responders all rely on our connectivity, and they rely on it to be there when they need it the most. We're just hyper-aware of that, and having a climate-resilient network really helps us provide continuous service in the face of the most extreme weather events.

Think about our FirstNet, which is for our first responders, [covering] well over 2.7 million square miles, making tens of thousands of cities and towns better able to respond to disasters. We're taking further action to increase the network resiliency of all of our networks, including our FirstNet network, and that's really, really important.

The measures we take, they ultimately help all parts of our business but also our first responders to operate faster, safer and more effectively when lives are on the line. That's a really important competitive advantage.