UK report’s “resiliency” sure looks a lot like “anticipation”

by on May 10, 2011 · 0 comments

A UK government report issued this week warns that climate change, in addition to threatening many different parts of everyday life, also threatens the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry. The report, available online, warns that regulatory measures have to be taken to lessen the threat of rising temperatures and stormy weather, which would have adverse effects on the radio waves that constitute communications technology.

Specifically, the report’s authors assume that rising temperatures and rainy storms will interfere with radio waves. This assumes that that the aforementioned rising temperatures and rainy storms are indeed a foregone conclusion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they are correct.

The study mentions that rising temperatures will cause cell towers to lose efficiency, but nothing in the document backs this up. Making such a claim requires scientific data but nothing was offered. A skeptical person reading this report may think, anecdotally, that cell towers are sited in all sorts of conditions all over the globe, taking into account varying temperatures in which they operate. Cell towers sited in Alaska are probably able to handle the extreme cold, otherwise the cell provider would not waste money placing it there. Likewise, a cell tower sited in Arizona would need to take into account the 100 degree+ temperature. And at last count, wireless service is available in both Alaska and Arizona.

The basis for their concern is that the UK report authors are assuming a 2-10 Celsius increase in mean temperature by 2080 (throughout England). This exceeds the IPCC prediction by quite a large margin and reality is likely to be far less. In the United States the worst case scenario is expected to be about 7 degrees Fahrenheit over the next several decades. But again, many climatologists assume it will be about half that.

The point of my critique is not to criticize their climate science, but rather the public policy approach that policymakers and the private market must undertake in order to address these concerns.

Interestingly, the report calls for a “climate resilient world,” but then doesn’t describe what a climate resilient world looks like, or the regulations that would be required to bring this utopia about (most of the recommendations require further study and prioritization). But the report does assert that “countries will need to increase their investment in their infrastructure to adjust to a more challenging climate.” So, the devil is in the details — UK economic regulators would be tasked with planning (aka regulating) on behalf of the ICT industries.

And while I applaud the introduction of “resiliency” into the conversation, I disagree with their interpretation of resiliency. One problem is that the authors concede that “the impact of climate change on telecommunications is not well understood,” but the report goes on to make some pretty fantastical potential pitfalls of what might happen if steps are not taken to mitigate these risks. Regulators shouldn’t be tasked with regulating using the worst case scenario as a basis for establishing rules. This is why cost/benefit analyses are necessary.

The UK report, and its subsequent recommendations, are in actuality engaging in a strategy of “anticipation” rather than “resiliency.” They are anticipating that catastrophic harm to the ICT industry will come about (rather than “may”) due to climate change. This despite the fact that we have been dealing with electromagnetic communication for one hundred years, and so far the only true threats to the continuation and expansion of this technology is physical infrastructure development (as in taller buildings that block line-of-site or cause signal attenuation) or solar activity in the form of solar flares.

A true adaption of a “resiliency” would take into account the fantastic evolutionary improvements in WiFi and other telecommunications over the last decade alone and even account for the high probability that WiFi as we know it will not be around by the time the worst-of-the-worst climate change repercussions hit. Same goes with traditional voice wireless telecommunications. Just check your local newspaper or tech blog for advertisements of 4G networks (3G networks are only 4-5 years old!). Before you know it, we will see improved iterations of today’s network emerge, this will be followed by revolutionary and possibly disruptive advances in communications in the next few decades. And by 2080? Chances are that we won’t even need cell towers; maybe not even fiber optics. (see Adam’s rundown on resiliency for more information)

Innovation moves rapidly, much more rapidly than government regulators. We need to take this into account when considering rulemaking and long-term climate change.

Wireless Fidelity (WiFi for short) has been around for awhile and in very different forms but most consumers are only familiar with a few systems since they came onto the consumer market in the early 2000s. This chart shows the evolution of consumer WiFi (though there are over a dozen other standards that most people don’t know about).

802.11b 150-300 feet 11Mb/s 1999
802.11g 150-300 feet 54Mb/s 2003
802.11n 300-600 feet 600mb/s Multiple I/O
WiMax 31 miles 40Mb/s – 1Gb/s mobile voice/broadband

The evolution of both wired and wireless technology continue unabated. And as the FCC moves toward opening up more wireless spectrum, companies and researchers will learn how to capitalize on these new airwaves, bringing more mobile broadband to citizens. If warmer temperatures or increased storms pose any threat to the global communications industry, you can bet that it won’t catch the governments and businesses, which have already poured billions of dollars into this investment, by surprise.

The report touches on other parts of the UK infrastructure that no doubt need to be addressed before 2080, such as roads, bridges, dams, airports, etc. This type of physical infrastructure may indeed be more susceptible to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. (again, assuming that a much worse climate period is heading our way and also that no maintenance or upgrading to this infrastructure is accounted for, again, not very realistic).

But policymakers still need to take into account the probability of massive floods and temperature increases with the cost of regulating against these risks. It’s tempting for government regulators to come to the rescue via economic regulation, but the cost and unintended consequences may very well outweigh any potential benefits. No one can see with crystal clarity just where human technological advancement will take us in the next seven decades, but acknowledging the fact that it exists would be a good start.

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