Anybody that lives on the East Coast has likely experienced a major Internet outage in the past due to catastrophic weather like hurricanes, storm surges, flooding, nor’easters, or snow blizzards. There have also been Internet outages due to electrical brownouts and blackouts due to hot weather. Outages also can come from non-weather events, and some of you might remember the fire in the tunnel in Baltimore that incinerated a lot of major fiber cables.
I talked to David Theodore of Climate Resilient Internet. David’s been around since the beginning of the Internet and cut his teeth designing some of the first wireless networks for MCI. The primary premise of resilient Internet is that we should design the critical broadband infrastructure in vulnerable communities to withstand outages. The company has created a simple video to explain the concept.
The cost of a community completely losing the Internet is immense. We’ve seen examples of major Internet outages in the memorable past. Hurricane Sandy knocked out broadband to a large part of New York City in 2012. Hurricane Erma knocked out broadband in parts of Miami for weeks in 2017. I’ve experienced this firsthand when I lived in the Virgin Islands and hurricane Otto knocked out my broadband and phone for six weeks. Some of you may remember what happened when 60 Hudson Street shut down in Manhattan after 911.
There is probably no worse time to lose the Internet than during a disaster since people want to communicate with loved ones and want to start taking steps to get back to normal. Society is increasingly reliant on uninterrupted Internet access. If hurricane Sandy hit today, the economic consequences would be far worse than what we experienced just eight years ago in 2012 since our business and personal lives have migrated extensively to the cloud since then. We are more reliant on broadband access each year as more of our daily routines involve Internet access. An Internet outage completely cuts us off from the outside world and takes away things we’ve come to take for granted.
Climate Resilient Internet recommends that vulnerable communities and key infrastructure in vulnerable communities incorporate resilient Internet links as part of the core Internet infrastructure. This means using powerful millimeter-wave radio links that are built to hurricane standards to beam broadband from key buildings to data centers away from flood plains and coastal flooding. It means putting those radio transmitters in secure places like rooftops where they can be bolted down to withstand hurricane winds. It means having onsite microgrid and backup power sources that don’t rely on the commercial power grid. And it means avoiding all wires between the radio transmitter and the data centers.
This doesn’t have to mean a new layer of extra expense. Theodore recommends that large broadband users incorporate radio links into their daily broadband usage so that some of their Internet traffic always travels via the wireless link. Large businesses and critical anchor institutions like hospitals should have diverse routing to reach the Internet. Unfortunately, as many have found out during outages, routes that are promised to be diverse often are not if they eventually converge or share physical address switching points. Having a backup connection using wireless links is one of the only sure ways to guarantee diverse routing.
Oddly, wireless has gotten a bad name over the past twenty years as carriers only wanted to talk about fiber. Some of that bad name is deserved as manufacturers flooded the market with inexpensive radios that don’t meet carrier class standards. But carrier class radios are still some of the most secure and reliable technology we’ve ever deployed. I know of some microwave links that have hummed along for over forty years. Recent technology improvements and the use of higher frequencies mean that radios today can carry multiple gigabits of data.
While cities in hurricane and flood plains have the highest risk of having outages, this concept is worth exploring for critical infrastructure everywhere. Large swaths of the country are vulnerable to tornados. Any city can have a devastating fire. Bad things can happen to even the most secure data center. Some areas of the country stand at risk for earthquakes. Every large city has businesses and key infrastructure that ought to be protected by diverse Internet routing. In too many cases diverse routing using fiber is unavailable, is too expensive, or turns out to not be truly diverse. ISPs everywhere ought to take another look at mixing resilient wireless routing into their networks and as part of their service offerings.