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Raising alarms about rising sea levels, internet infrastructure

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Raising alarms about rising sea levels, internet infrastructure

As network operators lay the groundwork for next-generation communications, researchers and investors warn that companies must plan for how the changing climate could impact both their existing and future infrastructure.

A recent study from researchers at two universities found thousands of miles of buried fiber-optic cable in the U.S. is at risk of being underwater within the next two decades based on projections for rising fe levels from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Specifically, by the year 2033, more than 4,000 miles of buried fiber-optic conduit in the U.S. will be permanently submerged. When examining the assets of individual internet service providers, the study found CenturyLink Inc., Inteliquent Inc. and AT&T Inc. to have the most infrastructure in coastal areas, such as Miami.

This risk means that operators need to spend significant time and capital both to protect their existing networks and to ensure that future deployments can withstand not only extreme weather but also the changing climate.

Operators have already taken steps to harden their networks against rising water levels and storm floods. Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T are both replacing their older copper lines with more water-resistant fiber assets. But Paul Barford, a University of Wisconsin professor of computer science who served as the study's senior author, believes more needs to be done. Fiber conduit, while water resistant, is not designed to exist wholly underwater, he said. He compared it to submarine cables, which come with significant exterior cladding that is waterproof. These submarine cables, he said, are "extremely expensive to deploy and very costly to maintain" versus fiber conduit.

AT&T has started using submarine underwater cabling in areas such as beaches or subways where cables could be submerged for long periods of time. However, representatives from both AT&T and Verizon emphasized that their fiber networks have the ability to withstand extreme conditions.

"Standard fiber cables are more flood-resilient, durable and much less susceptible to water damage than copper lines," an AT&T spokesperson said. "In general, the fiber cabling we use is designed to last for 30 years or more regardless of the environment it's placed in."

Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz agreed, describing fiber as "far superior" to other network materials, such as copper or even coaxial cables.

"Since [Superstorm] Sandy and some of the other larger storms that have come through, we've spent a great deal of time and resources to upgrade our network from copper and cable connections to fiber. So that's certainly weather-proofed the backbone and infrastructure of our network," she said.

Yet Barford would like to ensure that new and existing networks are not just weather-proofed but also climate-proofed.

"If we don't address this problem, the potential impacts could range from anything as simple as localized outages to internetwide catastrophic failures that could cause difficulties for many, many people," Barford said.

He noted that while in the past, companies may have thought about rising sea levels as a problem 100 years down the pike, the projections show that impacts will occur "much sooner rather than later" because of where internet infrastructure was deployed in the 1990s.

"We thought we would see consistent growth in the amount of internet infrastructure that would be covered by or surrounded by water over that 100-year period. But what we found is that most of the coastal deployments are going to be inundated within the next 15 years," he said, noting that a great deal of infrastructure is "very close to the current boundary between land and water."

In addition to existing infrastructure, network operators are just now starting to deploy the fiber and small cells, or cellular base stations and antennas, that will serve as the backbone for next-generation 5G wireless service. Citing data from Accenture, the U.S. wireless association CTIA has estimated that U.S. wireless companies will spend $275 billion over seven years to deploy 5G technology, including $93 billion on construction.

USTelecom — a trade association representing the nation's broadband industry, including members such as AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink — said in an emailed statement that maintenance of networks is always critical for its companies and that this entails "advance planning for threat mitigation, including near-term and long-term risks."

CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen said the company's national and global networks are designed with both redundancy and route diversity to ensure that traffic can be rerouted as necessary during maintenance or natural disasters.

"We will continue to take all potential risks, such as the effects of climate change, into consideration in our ongoing planning and deployment of existing and new facilities," Molzen said.

Inteliquent, also mentioned in the study, did not respond to a request for comment.

Aaron Ziulkowski — who manages the environmental, social and governance integration effort at the Boston Trust & Investment Management Co.-owned investment practice Walden Asset Management — said that ultimately there is an advantage to companies facing physical risk as it is one that can be seen and felt.

"It's a serious one, it's tangible and it's easy to understand," he said, adding that extreme weather and climate change are already having real effects on companies' bottom lines.

In a 2018 disclosure form submitted to the CDP, a not-for-profit charity that runs a global disclosure system, AT&T said it experienced $627 million in natural disaster costs and revenue credits throughout 2017.

"Investors are becoming more aware of the reality of climate change and the implications it has on investment decisions today," Ziulkowski said. "Extreme weather is something that I think we are all observing and better understanding."

However, it can be hard for investors to gather standardized data and information around that risk due to different voluntary reporting frameworks, he said. In addition to CDP's disclosure form, Ziulkowski noted that the Financial Stability Board's Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures has also put forward its own recommendations for disclosure.

"It's a concern from the companies' perspective and rightfully so," he said. "If there are a proliferation of voluntary frameworks, all of which are asking slightly different things, it would be an inefficient use of company resources to be responding to each and every one of them."

Walden Asset Management, however, has seen "good progress" on harmonizing disclosure efforts, Ziulkowski said.

Seawater inundation projected by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure in Miami
SNL Image
Submarine cables are shown in red, metro fiber-optic cables in green and long-haul fiber cables (upper left-hand corner) in black. Anything in the blue shaded areas is estimated to be underwater in 15 years due to the climate change-induced rise in sea levels as projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Source: Paul Barford, University of Wisconsin