Buried vs. aerial —fiber firms try to balance growth with resiliency

U.S. fiber companies are furiously expanding their network footprints to accommodate growing demand from consumers and businesses for high-speed broadband. According to the Fiber Broadband Association’s (FBA) 2022 Fiber Provider Survey, fiber was deployed to 7.9 million U.S. homes in 2022, more than in any previous year.

At the same time, the U.S. experienced 18 separate weather and climate disasters in 2022, according to the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, making it one of the most destructive and costly years in U.S. history in terms of weather and climate-related disasters.

For broadband network planners, it’s necessary to strike a balance between delivering fiber to areas that need connectivity and being cognizant of localities most in danger of climate disasters. For example, a fiber company may bury fiber instead of deploying aerial fiber in a hurricane-prone area or it might deploy aerial fiber instead of burying fiber in a low-lying area that is at risk for flooding.  

“Ultimately we deploy fiber where the population needs it,” said Paul Greendyk, VP of network resiliency at AT&T. “But we try to be smart about where we put those assets because of climate change.”

That means that even though Florida is prone to hurricanes and Arizona is in an extreme drought, AT&T will still expand its network because population is on the uptick in those states. Last year AT&T announced it was deploying fiber in Mesa, Arizona, which is outside its traditional ILEC footprint. “Right now, the population growth in Arizona and Florida is high so we need to build to meet demand,” Greendyk said.

Because AT&T uses its fiber network to provide backhaul for its wireless cell sites, the company also must consider the resiliency of the both its wireless and its fiber network. “There’s definitely more focus on the resiliency in the architecture and operations of the entire infrastructure,” Greendyk said. “We need to consider fiber for backhaul as well.”

Building for resiliency

Fiber networks typically use gear that conforms to Network Equipment Building Systems (NEBS) standards, which means that they meet certain requirements and will tolerate earthquakes and extreme temperatures. In addition, many fiber component vendors offer ruggedized products that have extensive warranties guaranteeing that their equipment will last for decades.

Clearfield, a company that designs, manufactures and distributes fiber optic products, makes sure its products are rigorously tested to be NEBS level 3 compliant. “If you have the right products that are NEBS level 3 certified, you have the confidence that those networks are going to survive,” said Kevin Morgan, CMO of Clearfield.

Morgan also said that in many fiber networks the optical splitter can be the “weakest link” and that’s why many fiber providers are now considering using more ruggedized splitters in their networks in areas that are prone to climate disasters.

According to FBA President Gary Bolton resiliency is “top of mind” for most fiber providers, especially now that resiliency is a requirement to secure Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding from the government. “Applicants for BEAD funding must show resiliency,” Bolton said.

In general, fiber is fairly resilient because it’s typically buried in the ground. “There’s fiber that was deployed in the 1980s that is still good,” Bolton said. However, that fiber might be more sensitive to loss, which is why fiber companies need to make sure they are using quality components in their networks, Bolton said.

Tracking weather events

Another way telecom firms stay on top of climate change and potential natural disasters is by carefully tracking weather events. AT&T recently partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate risk and resilience portal that provides state and local emergency managers with free access to data about future climate risks such as floods, wildfires and droughts.

Greendyk said that AT&T combines the FEMA and Argonne models with its own climate models to help it prepare for the future. The company also has a weather operations center staffed by meteorologists that make weather predictions and then coordinate with AT&T’s network operations team so that AT&T engineers have the most up-to-date information on potential weather events.

The rising number of weather and climate-related disasters is impacting how fiber providers and telecom operators plan for the future. “The world has changed,” Greendyk said. And that means broadband companies have to build robust networks that can withstand all types of intense weather extremes.