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ITU says IT industry must become 'resilient' in face of climate change

Your data centre needs a levee and comms should go wireless, say UN techies

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The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency responsible for information and communication technologies, has declared the information and communications technologies industries must “design and implement strategies for the sector to better prepare for, respond and adjust to the impacts of short- and long-term climatic manifestations.”

In a new report titled “Resilient pathways: the adaptation of the ICT sector to climate change” ((PDF), the ITU hedges on the causes of warming but says it is happening and has the potential to cause the following unpleasant outcomes for the ICT industries:

  • Accelerate the degradation of physical assets and ICT infrastructure,
  • Affect the supply of materials, interrupt transport and logistics,
  • Disrupt the availability and reliability of ICT services,
  • Increase operational business costs across the sector, reduce revenue, and challenge the sector’s ability to conduct repairs and recover from the effects of climatic events, among other direct and indirect impacts.

There's also warnings about how hard it will be to operate a data centre in a warmer and more humid world, a nod to working at home as desirable if the planet is lashed by weather that makes commuting tricky and warnings about the increased likelihood of buildings subsiding - and satellite dishes being thrown out of kilter - if the weather gets wetter.

All of those nasties mean IT outfits need to develop “resilience” plans to cope with climate change. The ITU's recommended path to resilience includes a suggestion to “Strengthen the sector’s physical assets or the connection between existent assets. This includes investments in flood barriers, cooling systems and more resistant infrastructure, among others.”

Other recommendations suggest building more redundancy into everything.

The report says climate change is also an opportunity for our sector, for the following reasons:

“ … the need to redesign ICT equipment and infrastructure to cope with the impact of climate change could provide an opportunity to develop and install more energy-efficient equipment and infrastructure and therefore reduce GHG emissions. This opportunity arises rarely once equipment is installed, and should be exploited.”

The report's full list of mitigation recommendations follows:

  • Make the backbone network redundant for most if not all service areas, and resilient to all types of extreme weather events; provide reliable backup power with sufficient fuel supply for extended grid power outages.
  • Decouple communication infrastructure from electric grid infrastructure to the extent possible, and make both more robust, resilient, and redundant.
  • Minimize the effects of power outages on telecommunications services by providing backup power at cell towers, such as generators, solar-powered battery banks, and “cells on wheels” that can replace disabled towers. Extend the fuel storage capacity needed to run backup generators for longer times.
  • Protect against outages by trimming trees near power and communication lines, maintaining backup supplies of poles and wires to be able to replace expediently those that are damaged, and having emergency restoration crews ready to be deployed ahead of the storm’s arrival.
  • Place telecommunication cables underground where technically and economically feasible, ensuring that they are appropriately protected against water ingress.
  • Replace segments of the wired network most susceptible to weather (e.g., customer drop wires) with low-power wireless solutions.
  • Relocate central offices that house telecommunication infrastructure, critical infrastructure in remote terminals, cell towers, etc., and power facilities out of future floodplains, including in coastal areas which are increasingly threatened by sea level rise combined with coastal storm surges.
  • Further develop backup cell phone charging options at the customer’s end, such as car chargers, and create a standardized charging interface that allows any phone to be recharged by any charger.
  • Assess, develop, and expand alternative telecommunication technologies if they promise to increase redundancy and/or reliability, including free-space optics (which transmits data with light rather than physical connections), power line communications (which transmits data over electric power lines), satellite phones, and ham radio.
  • Reassess industry performance standards combined with appropriate, more uniform regulation across all types of telecommunication services, and uniformly enforce regulations, including mandatory instead of partially voluntary outage reporting to the regulatory agencies.
  • Develop high-speed broadband and wireless services in low-density rural areas to increase redundancy and diversity in vulnerable remote regions.
  • Perform a comprehensive assessment of the entire telecommunications sector’s current resiliency to existing climate perils, in all of their complexities. Extend this assessment to future climate projections and likely technology advances in the telecommunications sector. This includes the assessment of codependency between the telecommunications and power sectors' relative vulnerabilities.
  • Provide options and incentives to decouple one from the other while improving resiliency of each.
  • Implement measures to improve public safety and continuity of communications services during extreme events.

The report also suggests that the ICT sector is likely to be an important part of the world's response to climate change and, as such, needs to take it and proactive resilience-building measures seriously. ®

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