With harsh winter conditions ramping up and COVID-19 requiring more people to quarantine or work remotely, broadband resiliency has never been more important. Unfortunately, storms often cause power failures, leaving many without electricity and even internet service when they need it most. In January, an extreme winter snowstorm in parts of Northern Virginia left thousands without power or internet for hours. That storm was just one of four during the month.

Aii’s Washington, D.C. team felt the effects of the harsh weather, but they are not the only ones.

Extreme weather has created a 300 percent increase in internet outages in the last decade. To understand how broadband is susceptible to harsh weather conditions, it is instructive to start by examining the power grid.

Last year, the average American home went more than eight hours without power, more than twice the outage time from five years prior, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Whether it’s lightning looking for its quickest path to the ground, trees crashing into power lines from the force of the wind or weight of the snow, or flooding causing damage to overhead and underground power lines, storms threaten the energy grid in a variety of ways. With the power grid being a vital part of internet infrastructure, a threat to the grid is a threat to internet access. Similarly, external threats from weather can directly harm internet-specific infrastructure.

The global internet infrastructure was designed in the 1980s utilizing structures and systems created to match with the needs and climate of the late 20th century. These global internet infrastructures are struggling to withstand our current climate as it is steadily changing. Flooding, heavy precipitation, wildfires, and increased extreme weather conditions have left certain internet infrastructures like fiber optic boxes and cables vulnerable.

Even fixed-wireless and 5G internet can be impacted by storms. Although fixed-wireless and 5G internet may not be physical internet infrastructure systems, they work by sending signals which can be blocked by extreme weather conditions. With even the most durable of internet infrastructures falling prey to weather phenomena, we must consider other solutions.

Microgrids can be an effective form of resilient internet infrastructure that have helped minimize disruptions to electrical power during storms and other external threats. Additionally, some form of backup network medium is vital with the rate of climate change.

Some solutions include microwave communications and laser links. One company, Climate Resilient Internet, is using microwave waves to do just that. Their backup internet system allows for data to be transmitted wirelessly if fiber optic cables fail.

Restorations to internet infrastructure can often take days if not weeks. It is becoming vital to everyone who depends on internet service in the U.S., whether for school, work, or other, that better broadband internet infrastructure is needed. It is time to consider upgrades to the global internet infrastructure to keep up with the current demands of our world. Though extreme weather conditions threaten our power grid, access to the internet is as crucial as ever amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans cannot be left in the dark.


Written by Rachel Spencer, Communications Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.