Criminals, terrorists, and hostile nations could no doubt wreak havoc on cyberspace today. But the greatest long-term threat to the Internet is not human but rather Mother Nature.
I’m specifically referring to climate change. As the world continues to heat because of greenhouse gas emissions, coastal flooding from storms and rising sea levels will destroy the equipment needed to make the Internet run, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and University of Oregon.
“With significant sea level rise predicted, it is important to assess the threat to communication infrastructure,” the study said. “An indication of the potential impacts are the storm surges of major hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy that devastated communication systems.”
“While the standard buried fiber conduits are designed to be water and weather resistant, most of the deployed conduits are not designed to be under water permanently.”
The study identified major coastal cities in the United States, including New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Houston, as particularly vulnerable to breaking the Internet because they host landing stations, data centers, and IXPs (Internet Exchange Points).
Over the next 15 years, over 1,186 miles of long-haul fiber conduit, which is mostly underground, and 2,429 miles of metro fiber conduit will be underwater, researchers estimated. And 1,101 termination points (where someone’s phone or data connects to an office or building) will be surrounded by sea water.
Furthermore, over 99 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flows through cables stretched along the bottom of oceans. One can only presume that storms and rough seas will make it harder to install, or repair those fiber optic lines. These vulnerabilities come at a time when we are becoming even more dependent on the Internet. In addition to buying stuff on Amazon or watching Netflix shows, countries are already deploying next generation 5G service and Internet of Things technology, in which watches and coffee makers to autonomous cars communicate via cyberspace.
But like highways and bridges, we have not invested the massive amounts of money needed to upgrade our Internet infrastructure to handle such online stress, never mind withstand a hurricane or flood.
With that said, here are 3 alternative technologies that can provide Internet service.
These technologies, including nanosatellites and Internet balloons, probably won’t completely replace fiber optic lines and cables. Indeed, most of them were originally intended to provide Internet access to rural regions, geographically inaccessible areas like mountains and forests, or developing countries that lack modern equipment. However, these emerging markets offer a good place to test these technologies before coming to the United States.
And given the threat of climate change, those geographically inaccessible areas might very well soon turn out to be San Francisco or New York.
Satellites Beaming Internet access from outer space is hardly a new idea. But there are few reasons why the technology never caught on. One, it’s pretty expensive to launch a satellite. Second, clouds or bad weather can make it hard for a signal to pass through. As a result, latency, the amount of time it takes for data to travel roundtrip, is pretty high.
Enter nanosatellites or “nanosats.” They can fit in your hand and weigh 2 to 22 pounds. While a regular satellite costs about $2 million to build, nanostats cost about tens of thousands of dollars a pop. Imagine fleets of these devices floating above the atmosphere transmitting and receiving digital data.
“As more and more nanosatellites are sent to space by universities, tech companies, government entities, and private citizens alike, they’ll provide comprehensive ‘coverage’ of Earth at an incredibly low cost – leading to game-changing transformations,” according to a report by CB Insights research firm.
Iridium Communications and Teledesic tried such technologies but both companies were commercial failures.
However, in March, the Federal Communications Commission granted SpaceX, the unicorn founded by Elon Musk, a license to operate a constellation of 12,000 mini-satellites in very low orbit around the Earth. By orbiting between 684 miles to 823 miles in the air versus the standard 22,000 miles for a regular satellite, SpaceX microsatellites can reduce latency and thus provide more reliable Internet service. OneWeb, Telesat, and Space Norway have also received similar FCC licenses.
Australian company Sky and Space (SAS) is also planning to provide telecommunications coverage to millions of people living in a band around the equator – stretching from Darwin to Hong Kong – by 2020. SAS will partner with Virgin Galactic to launch 200 nano-satellites into space beginning this year.
Internet balloons Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has been working on high altitude balloons to provide Internet service to African countries like Kenya. The balloons float between 11 and 16 miles in the sky and use radios to link to volleyball-sized antennas mounted on homes or businesses.
Fixed Wireless Private firms like Starry Wireless, Veniam, and Optipulse are developing ways to access the Internet by using infrared laser beams instead of cables or fiber optics to transmit data between two fixed points like a building and a radio cell tower.
Facebook had been exploring this technology with high altitude drones beaming the lasers to fixed points from the sky but recently discontinued the project.
Alphabet has rolled out its fixed wireless service, called WebPass, to 9 cities, including Seattle and Denver.
|Category||Company Name||Recent Developments|
|Nano Satellites||SpaceX||Launched mini satellites in June 2018 as part of a planned global Internet service|
|Astranis||Received $13.5 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, BoxGroup and Lux Capital|
|Sky & Space||Successfully completed test with Globalsat, a consortium of companies providing satellite communications services all over the Western Hemisphere|
|Internet Balloons||Google/Alphabet||Provided Internet access to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria|
|Fixed Wireless||Starry Wireless||Recently launched service in Los Angeles and Washington, DC|
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