How to Prepare your Transport Network for the Next Big Disaster

By Randy Jenkins, Director, Business Development

Commercial mobile networks in the US are morphing into critical infrastructure as homeowners abandon their landline phones and rely instead on their mobile phones. Critical alerts, evacuation information, and family reconnections are relying on mobile networks in times of disasters. Unfortunately, those are exactly the times that the mobile network infrastructure is most severely tested and in recent past has shown it cannot stand up to the rigors of these disasters. The US Federal Government (FCC) and state/regional entities are looking at ways to limit the impacts of these disasters.

US phone statistics:

  • About 40% of US homes still have wired phones
  • About 80% of wired phones are VOIP, most without battery B/U
  • Only about 8-10% of homes get alerts from landline systems in the events of an emergency while ALL others rely on mobile cellular

“Broadband communications have become essential to the delivery of life-saving information in a disaster. It’s critical to public safety that our broadband networks are as resilient as possible to prevent outages in a disaster and also can be restored as quickly as possible when an outage occurs.” – FCC chairman  (Disaster Response and Recovery Working Group)

Below are two recent disasters, the Camp Fires in Northern California and Hurricane Michael in Florida, that we will review in order to understand how these events affected their mobile networks.

California has suffered over the years from the devastating effects of wildfires and 2018 was no exception. The Camp Fire (named from Camp Creek Road where the fire started) in Northern California claimed nearly three times as many lives and structures than any other wildfire in the state’s history –  81 lives, 100,000 acres and an estimated $16.5 billion of destruction.

This fire was characterized by its amazing speed. It overwhelmed the communities and destroyed the telecommunications infrastructure so quickly that orders for evacuation were not received by the residents. This resulted in mass confusion, failure to evacuate in a timely fashion, and poor coordination in reconnecting families……and ultimately loss of life.

Camp Fire California: >85 casualties, 19k buildings, 153 acres, $16.5B in total damages

There are many lessons learned from this horrible disaster that should be considered in limiting the impact and advancing the recovery from similar disasters in the future. Among them:

  1. Fiber plant fails quickly during fires and with it, goes the wireless network that is heavily relied upon by residents for their communications (either mobile phones or home VOIP phones)
  2. Satellite communications suffer severely from smoke in the air limiting its throughput and connection reliability as a means of temporary communications
  3. Microwave communications offer immediate connections delivering high capacity voice and data services from outside the affected area and are not affected by smoke in the air
  4. Destruction of Fiber plant means 1-2 months of temporary telecommunications are needed

 

In the case of Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida panhandle on October 9, 2018, with 155 MPH winds, the destruction was also staggering with 1000s of electrical poles destroyed, $25B in damages totaled, and 57 deaths.

The cell sites in Florida suffered because they were mostly all connected above ground by fiber and could not withstand the damaging winds and rain. Temporary fiber that was laid on the ground was then cut numerous times by repair crews. To alleviate the situation, roughly 20 links of MW were installed and were still in operation as recently as Feb 2019.

Figure 1: Storm Path of Hurricane Michael

Figure 2: Network Sites in Florida

A NOAA study of disasters in the US shows an increasing number of large environmental events each year. The reality is the next wildfire or hurricane is right around the corner and preparations must be made to combat it. Hardening the mobile infrastructure, prepositioning recovery telecommunications equipment and planning the temporary network in advance is all needed to limit the impact of the next big disaster.

Below are detailed actions that operators can take to harden their transport networks:

  1. Use more microwave. Microwave is more reliable and survivable than fiber.
    1. Fiber diversity tends to be confusing. Often multiple fiber strands are utilized but run through the same conduit (buried) or line (aerial) or along the same side of the street for a distance. Microwave diversity is always utilized and is a very cost-effective option when using microwave.
    2. Fiber failures tend to be lengthy repairs. Aerial: Wind downed lines or burned in fires – typically affect large areas and thus any fiber rings get destroyed. Buried: Backhoe damage, flooding junction boxes, and rodents can all cause issues. Microwave failures, on the other hand, tend to be quick repairs. For example, failure of one radio is backed up by a second, antennas blown off-axis tend to still work in a slightly degraded state, and loss of power or blown over towers can be repaired with little downtime.
  2. Installing Microwave radios at key sites that have a very high probability of surviving the disaster.   These Microwave radios provide backup to the installed fiber base.   They can also be used to connect temporary COW placements after the emergency has passed and to enable more rapid recovery.
  3. Maintaining Microwave radios in a safe storage location that can be dispatched quickly to the emergency sites and enable restoration of services.  The “Microwave-radio-in-a-box” concept ensures all the equipment needed to establish a link is in one place and is transported as one kit, thus reducing the time needed to set up that link.
  4. Work with a vendor who understands how to build reliable networks and can deliver reliable and hardened products that have been proven. But its not just about products. Networks should be designed with disasters in mind and should leverage the experience of mission-critical vendors to build network right the first time. These vendors should also be dependable, proactive, and responsive when disaster does strike.

Find out more

To learn how we can help you prepare for the next big disaster, please contact Aviat today.

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