Industry Insights

Is the Internet Infrastructure Threatened by Global Warming?

2018-09-21  |  5 min read 

In one way or another, most of us have experienced firsthand the effects of climate change recently – from the Santa Rosa fire that touched too close to home for Keysight, to record-breaking heat waves on the East coast that according to Bloomberg literally slowed down the New York stock exchange, to the floods this week that continue to devastate the Carolinas. All these events have cascading effects on services that so many of us rely upon in our daily lives. The most significant impacts are in urban areas where large concentrations of people depend upon the smooth functioning of infrastructure systems such as health care, transportation, power, and communications. Disruptions in one of these services almost always result in interruptions in one or more other areas, at least for a short period.

The internet infrastructure is not immune. In fact, according a recent study by the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin - Madison, the first assessment of risk of climate change to the internet, rising sea levels may completely submerge thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cables and data centers on the coast bringing the physical internet to a virtual standstill in the next 15 years. The study indicates that New York, Miami, and Seattle metropolitan areas face the highest risk. Can you imagine the economic impact the loss of internet communication in these areas would have?

Fiber optic networks, built 20-25 years ago, have remained virtually unchanged.  I don't think anyone realized the impact climate change would have so soon. The need to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, is imminent. Now might be a good time to do a quick review of the fundamentals of fiber optics, to understand what alternatives we might have in the future.

Optical fiber contains multiple strands of glass, covered in a protective coating, that transmits data as pulses of light rather than electrical pulses. The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 186,000 miles per second. Since data transmission through an optical fiber is impeded by the silica glass of the fiber, the transmission rate is about 124,000 miles per second, which is essentially the speed of light through glass. Therefore, data transmission speeds through an optical fiber are almost limitless except by the electronics at either end of the fiber. Therefore, although fiber is expensive, it provides a virtual highway of endless data transmission capabilities – unless it is rendered useless by rising sea levels. The problems are not so much the submarine fiber optic cables themselves, as it is the data centers they connect to on the coast. These installations are designed to be weather resistant, but not to be submerged by water.

While it is difficult to predict the impact of climate change to the internet infrastructure, the good news is that we are conscious of the potential impact and that researches are currently looking for alternatives to offset future disasters. One possible alternative technology is open-air optical or fiberless optical transmission. Like traditional wireless communication, which relies on RF/microwave transmission of data over the air, open-air optical technology uses light rather than radio waves to transmit data.

While this technology is an exciting alternative to traditional fiber optic networks, it does have its limitations. For example, over the air optics will not reach the same speeds as conventional optical fiber transmission and is limited to point-to-point links. There are also significant security concerns of data interception mid-air or even impedance by objects such as birds or buildings. Open-air optics is not necessarily a superior option to traditional fiber optical cable transmission, but it is an attractive alternative to consider especially in the face of climate change.

Keysight’s Optical and Photonic solutions can help you accurately and efficiently test your optical transceivers so you can design the next generation of high-speed interconnects including over-the-air optics.