Climate change is catching up to Canada’s telecom industry.
Across the country, events related to extreme weather are increasingly damaging or threatening telecom networks, forcing the industry’s major providers to take costly emergency measures and devote more resources to keeping the nation’s communications infrastructure intact.
This year, the record start to Canada’s wildfire season is proving particularly challenging.
“It’s unprecedented for us to jump across the Canadian map for wildfires the way we have,” said Phil Moore, Telus Corp.’s vice-president of emergency response and business continuity.
Telus T-T has learned to pivot quickly when disaster strikes. As flames engulfed Alberta’s forests in May, the Vancouver-based telecom shipped a number of portable towers for cellphone service to Edmonton. The following month, when a raging fire forced the closing of the major east-west route on Vancouver Island, the company rerouted one of those towers to provide connectivity to a remote area being used as a detour.
In the meantime, Telus had worked to quickly restore services in Quebec, where fires had taken down its fibre-optic network in several spots, and it sent supplies to support evacuation efforts in Atlantic Canada.
Many industries – from agriculture, to insurance, to oil and gas – are grappling with the effects of climate change. But for telecoms, the need to maintain their services during extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes, floods and mudslides is particularly critical, because connectivity serves as a lifeline for residents in affected areas and is an essential tool for emergency responders.
And the cost of maintaining communications networks in the face of those increasingly frequent weather-related emergencies is climbing.
In some instances, maintaining service requires Herculean efforts, including flying in generators on helicopters, bringing in portable cell towers on trucks and predicting the spread of wildfires so that fire retardant can be applied to telecom equipment at the right time.
Telecom networks rely on commercial power, and to keep them running when electricity goes down, providers have been installing backup power – from batteries to full-on generators – at their central offices and towers. Additional costs also stem from labour and equipment needed to repair critical infrastructure, heating and cooling, and increased insurance premiums.
BCE Inc. BCE-T, the parent of Bell Canada, spent $44-million last year repairing the damage to its network caused by natural disasters, including roughly $30-million as a result of Hurricane Fiona.
The post-tropical storm caused significant damage to Bell’s infrastructure when it hit Atlantic Canada last September, including breaking 1,500 poles, destroying 50 cellphone towers and damaging thousands of kilometres of cable. More than 25,000 hours of overtime were put in by Bell employees responding to the disaster.
This year, Bell has already seen $8-million of costs relating to weather events, and that doesn’t include the wildfires, which have impacted parts of its fibre-optic network as well as four cellular sites in Nova Scotia. “The impact of the wildfires themselves is not yet costed, but it’s going to be several million dollars, based on what we’re seeing,” said Marc Duchesne, Bell’s vice-president of corporate responsibility.
Telus, meanwhile, has spent more than $110-million over the past five to six years on responding to climate change and mitigating its effects. The Vancouver-based telecom has invested in generators and solar-powered cell towers, lifted central offices in flood-prone areas and cleared brush to prevent fires from burning its equipment. It’s also added redundancy in what’s known as the transport portion of its network – the large conduits that serve as highways carrying data across the country.
Some of those investments have already paid off. During the recent wildfires in Alberta, Telus’s brush-clearing efforts prevented flames from engulfing four of its cell sites, said Mr. Moore. Two of them were large towers that would have cost $800,000 each to replace.
Earlier this year, Canada’s telecom regulator directed Canadian carriers to report major network outages within two hours. The rules, which were put in place on an interim basis while the regulator studies the issue, followed last year’s widespread outage at Rogers Communications Inc., which left millions of customers without cellphone, internet or home phone service. Although the outage was caused by a coding error, and not by a weather event, it thrust network reliability into the spotlight. (Rogers did not specify the financial impact of climate change on its operations.)
Outages impacting crucial telecom services are becoming increasingly frequent, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. And half of the service disruptions reported to the regulator since the requirement took effect on March 8 were caused by weather-related events, the CRTC said.
The situation is likely to get worse as rising greenhouse gas levels make severe storms more frequent and cause sea levels to rise. One 2018 paper by researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin-Madison predicted that in the United States, 4,067 miles of fibre-optic conduit will be under water in the next 15 years.
“While the standard buried fibre conduits are designed to be water and weather resistant, most of the deployed conduits are not designed to be under water permanently,” reads the paper by Ramakrishnan Durairajan, Carol Barford and Paul Barford.
The trend is expected to play out in Canada as well, said Mr. Duchesne. “Rising water levels is absolutely something that we will have to deal with,” he said.
Despite how critical connectivity has become, the impact of climate change on telecom networks has received little attention according to David Theodore, the chief executive of Resilient Internet.
“The internet is the world’s most valuable resource,” said Mr. Theodore, whose firm promotes standards and certifications relating to internet resiliency.
“We talk about how critical data is and how we’re tethered to remote computing. And yet we have this huge vulnerability, which is a roulette wheel – it could land on any region.”
Vancouver-based Telus started designing its emergency response playbook in the early 2000s, particularly in the wake of the infamous wildfire that spread from Okanagan Mountain Park to Kelowna, B.C., where it burned down more than 230 homes.
That playbook includes liaising with multiple levels of government and provincial agencies to co-ordinate a response. The telecom also has an emergency management operating committee comprised of about 80 vice-presidents and directors from across the company who are brought together during natural disasters and other crises. This year marks the first time that the committee, which is chaired by Mr. Moore, has been activated for multiple weather-related events at the same time.
Telus has had numerous opportunities to hone its response since the early 2000s.
“In the West, we get an increasing amount of wildfires that are getting bigger and coming more frequently,” said Mr. Moore.
In the East, ice storms and hurricanes can wreak havoc on telecommunications networks.
Mountainous regions, meanwhile, are prone to flooding and mudslides caused by melting snowpacks and atmospheric rivers – long, narrow bands of concentrated water vapour in the air.
Some areas that used to experience floods once per half a century now see two floods per decade, said Mr. Moore. That’s forced telecom providers to relocate some of their infrastructure.
“Last week in Ontario, our seven off-grid towers along Highway 652 near Cochrane kept our customers connected despite wildfire-related hydro outages in the area,” Ron McKenzie, Rogers’ chief technology and information officer, said in a statement.
Responding to natural disasters has also created opportunities for telecoms to provide humanitarian aid. In November, 2021, while surveying damage atmospheric rivers had done to Telus’s lines from a helicopter, company employees were able to rescue a couple of people who were stranded on a rooftop. Other aid efforts include providing supplies – from baby formula to pet food – to evacuation centres.
Technicians working on the ground often put in long hours, for instance ensuring that the generators providing backup power are constantly refuelled.
“You get used to driving in the opposite direction of people evacuating,” said Andre Schendel, an Edmonton-based technical specialist on Rogers’s field operations team.
Mr. Duchesne recalled how during the Quebec ice storm last winter, one Bell technician slept in one of the telecom’s central offices. (Central offices are the hubs where cables serving various communities converge.)
For the time being, Bell doesn’t expect the impact of climate change to be financially material. Still, the company anticipates extreme weather events damaging its network more often, and it’s adapting its protocols in preparation.
“I think that everybody is seeing that hurricanes are going to be more frequent, and are going to impact us even more going forward,” Mr. Duchesne said.
“Every time we deal with this, we learn a lot about things that we need to change, things that we need to do a little bit differently.”