Could Fiber be the Answer to Connectivity in Natural Disasters?

Could Fiber be the Answer to Connectivity in Natural Disasters?

October 02, 2019

Along the Atlantic coast of Canada, emotions are running high with residents.

In early September, the remnants of Hurricane Dorian swept through their region, interrupting communication services. The Maritimes were hit with widespread power outages and property damage, and more importantly, reaching emergency services was challenging . Although this was a somewhat rare event historically, such weather related incidents are happening with more frequency now.

“For those who have been affected by what they consider to be faulty or deficient telephone services, they … should make their concerns known to the … regulatory authority,” Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said at a press conference, according to Global News Canada. He was referring to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. “They need to know if customers believe the response to the emergency was not at the level they have a right to expect. Make sure you make that concern known to the CRTC.”

The situation has many across Canada and beyond looking at how better, more reliable connectivity plays into mitigating the impact of intense weather systems. Many experts believe fiber is the best option to retain or quickly re-establish communications during and after these drastic weather events. Barry Walton, who works at Corning Optical Communications, said it’s a top-of-mind concern for not just consumers, but utilities and government officials as well.

“Consumers are more vulnerable to network outages than they were in decades past,” he said. “Telecommunication companies have become the life-blood of the connected world. When storms come in like this, are telecom companies prepared?”

Walton is very knowledgeable on disaster preparedness. He’s spent his career speaking about it and overseeing emergency restoration preparations at telecommunication companies. He’s never seen storms this frequent—or this bad—affecting communities around the world. He himself is a resident of coastal Canada and has had to adapt to the weather changes.

In 2017, a huge ice storm hit Barry’s home province of New Brunswick, Canada, ravaging utility poles and the communications networks on those poles. He even invested in a generator because power outages were becoming so frequent. However, power wasn’t his only concern.

“A lot has happened in the past 20 years with people’s reliance on communication,” he said. “Back then, there was pressure to get the lights back on… but now it’s more about ‘Why isn’t my phone working? Why isn’t my internet working?’ Everyone is much more dependent on new technology than on the original telephone dial tone.”

In Walton’s opinion, using fiber optics is not the silver bullet, but it is the best option many have to keep their systems operating.

Fiber networks—especially the ones built underground—are more durable than copper infrastructure, satellite and wireless. Fiber cables typically stand up very well to a weather event compared to a copper cable. Copper cables do not perform well when they are damaged and get wet. 

When Hurricane Michael hit parts of Florida and Alabama in 2018, some fiber optic networks were knocked out in the region after enduring 155 mph winds. Verizon was able to restore about 98% of that service just days after losing it. 

During Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma—both of which hit in 2017 and pummeled parts of Florida, Texas and the Caribbean Islands—local networks fed with fiber hummed along, keeping a strong internet connection. Major data centers, including companies like EdgeConneX and Skybox, were able to keep their doors open thanks in part to fiber.

“It wasn’t Noah’s ark, but it was darn close,” Skybox Managing Partner and Co-Founder Rob Morris told the New York Times in 2017.

They’re not the only ones to notice fiber’s reliability in natural disasters. After Hurricane Sandy, Verizon used an advanced pumping system to keep flood waters from corroding its copper infrastructure in the area. After the event, the company started replacing the old, copper cables with fiber because of its operational robustness.

At the end of the day, Walton said, connectivity is important to customers—especially during an emergency situation. Being able to access the internet after a weather event means they can run their businesses, find supplies like food and fuel, and connect with their loved ones to let them know they’re alright.

“There is strong evidence that fiber—while not perfect—has fewer operational and maintenance issues than copper,” Walton said. “Everything is evolving… the weather and consumers’ expectations with respect to anywhere, anytime connectivity.”


Written by:
Kate Jacobson, Fiber Broadband Association

Fiber connectivity 911 natural disasters emergency