Our Drowning Internet: The Threat to CRE and Tenant Experience

Telecommunications | on March 19, 2019

Climatologists, city planners, and real estate investors, have long known that rising sea-levels pose a threat to roads, public transportation routes, and utilities like gas and power. But only in the last few years have we begun to understand how rising water levels and climate change will impact the physical infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the internet. The fiber optic cables, data centers, and power stations that make up the underlying infrastructure that supports internet connectivity are all susceptible to damage during weather events.

Emerging research shows that a 100 year storm isn’t necessary to put this infrastructure at risk: rising sea-levels brought on by climate change pose a threat to connectivity infrastructure and real estate assets. Due the increased frequency of floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes in recent years, investing in disaster preparation more crucial than ever. According to the NOAA Office for Coastal Management, in the next ten years, cities like New York, Miami, and Seattle are likely to see up to a foot of sea-level rise. This will put much larger portions of these cities at risk of massive coastal surges in severe storms.

How will this impact our critical infrastructure? National Geographic recently featured an article about the thousands of miles of fiber optic cable that will be under water within 15 years due to the rising sea levels, making up about 20% percent of the nation's key internet infrastructure. That is certainly alarming when thinking about fragility of our infrastructure, when something as simple as a typo can cause the internet to break.

In 2012, I worked to restore critical internet services during the Hurricane Sandy Recovery period and saw firsthand which measures were most effective in restoring building and tenant operations. Keep reading to understand how your property and tenants could be impacted by infrastructure damage and which elements of resiliency can mitigate risk. 

The Threat to Real Estate

Careful assessment and analysis needs to be conducted to determine the resiliency of your property or development to withstand the anticipated sea level rise and extreme weather events. Integrated risk assessment in commercial real estate is now a thriving sector where professionals are hired to conduct a comprehensive analysis of a properties exposure to climate related risks. In October of 2018, GeoPHY and Four Twenty Seven conducted an analysis of 73,500 properties owned by 350 REITs, and found that 35% of the properties are exposed to Climate Risk.

Not only can sea level rise and weather events cause damage to your property and interrupt operations, they also have a significant financial impact on tenants.

Recent data shows that on average, an hour of internet downtime costs a Fortune 1000 company $300k. This number has tripled from $100k in 2017. What this means is that in this digital world, tenants are rapidly putting more of their operations into the cloud, and they need connectivity to function as a business. Considering the damage loss of connectivity can have on profitability and productivity, tenants are now thoroughly vetting spaces to ensure that the building they are moving into is resilient and reliable from a connectivity standpoint. 

While disruptive weather events and rising sea-levels are out of human control, there are smart design features and preventative measures that lessen the impact of natural disasters on both a building’s infrastructure and tenant experience. Here are the key factors of resiliency that can protect your asset:

Point of Entry

Aerial communications infrastructure routed along telephone poles or along the sides of buildings is especially susceptible to outages related to high winds during hurricanes and tropical storms, tornadoes, or blizzards. Although it is more expensive for buildings to locate incoming telecom infrastructure underground, it is far more resilient to weather related outages.

If you are going to invest in underground points of entry, it is essential to ensure the incoming conduits are fully waterproofed with duct plugs blocking unused conduits and inflatable seals placed within conduits that are in use.

Flood Planning

From a design standpoint, buildings in a floodplain should protect telecom rooms by locating them above the floodplain. Doing so will preserve sensitive telecommunications electronics from damage from hurricanes, coastal flood surges, and general water infiltration.

Telecom equipment has traditionally been stored in basement and sub-basement levels to preserve rentable square footage on upper floors. However, during disasters like Hurricane Sandy, water damage destroyed all of the associated telecom electronics on those lowest levels. Locating this critical equipment above flood levels protects against lengthy service outages and expensive damage to equipment. There may be no way to prevent an outage when the electrical grid is shut down for safety, but the restoration process is much quicker when equipment isn’t damaged. The irony, is even when restoring service during Hurricane Sandy, some building owners forced ISPs to put their equipment back into flood prone basements that were freshly pumped out, so tenants need to ask the right questions when leasing space in a flood zone.

Electrical Resiliency

For a building to have best-in-class connectivity, it should have multiple forms of electrical resiliency supporting its telecommunication services. Internet connectivity is inherently dependent on electricity, so electrical resiliency needs to be incorporated into building design to ensure that buildings are disaster-ready.

Back-up generators: One of the most effective disaster precautions is establishing a comprehensive plan to supply back-up generator power to the telecommunications rooms and make it available to tenant suites. Many tenants with mission-critical connectivity needs will supply their own dedicated backup generators or will pay for access to the building’s generator to prevent any unplanned power outages. However, it is not enough to only provide backup power to office suites in order to keep tenants online: generators must be connected to ISP equipment in telecom rooms to preserve and restore internet service when power outages occur.

During Hurricane Sandy, many financial services tenants utilized backup generators to restore power to their offices. However, they were unable to resume normal operations because the ISP equipment in the building’s telecom rooms were not supplied with generator power. Without internet access, employees were forced to work remotely. Additionally, buildings should ensure the fuel transfer pumps that connect storage tanks (often located in basements) to rooftop generator systems are protected and contained within flood-proof locations. During Hurricane Sandy, many buildings in New York City did not plan for this element of resiliency. Despite investing millions into rooftop generators, buildings were unable to utilize the equipment when it was needed, because fuel delivery from the storage tank to the generators was halted.

Mobile Generator Hook-ups: For prolonged outages, incorporating generator tap-boxes can serve as a stopgap measure. During Hurricane Sandy, many fixed generators in buildings were overtaxed and failed after running for several days straight. Buildings with street-level tap-boxes were able to rent generators until electrical service was fully restored.

Diverse Electrical Feeds from different sub-stations: Buildings with diverse electrical feeds from diverse substations are less likely to lose power during rolling blackouts. During flood events, most buildings lose power because they are tied into a single substation that fails. Having feeds from different substations mitigates that risk.

Variety of Providers and Transmission Mediums: If you are in an area that is at risk of being hit by a major storm or hurricane, you can prepare by ensuring multiple Type 1 ISPs are servicing your building so that tenants are not susceptible to a single point of failure. After Hurricane Sandy, buildings in NYC that only had service from Verizon found themselves without internet for up to six months due to extensive repairs across the entire Verizon network. Some tenants had even paid for redundant services, to only find out that the providers they were using were all riding Verizon's cables into their building. As a result, landlords that only had Verizon connectivity in the building paid to relocate their tenants into temporary office space where internet service and electricity had been restored while Verizon’s network was repaired. Keep in mind that copper and coax networks are particularly susceptible to water damage, so buildings with one or more fiber or fixed wireless option available are equipped with more resilient connectivity infrastructure in the event of flooding or water damage.

Preparation, not prevention

No matter how resilient and redundant a building’s infrastructure is, there is no building that is fully disaster-proof. In addition to implementing these best-practices, teams should develop disaster recovery plans (DRP) with an aim of getting buildings up and running as quickly as possible in the event of an unforeseen weather event.

Start by securing contracts with fuel providers and mobile generator companies that can be deployed after the storm hits. Then, talk to your team about flood prevention planning-- from inflatable flood barriers or flood gates.

IoT-enabled buildings and specialized weather sensors can provide real time monitoring and advanced warning of adverse weather events, which can allow your team to respond with preventative measures or automatically trigger recovery measures like generator power.

Another key aspect of a DRP is documenting the ISPs in a building and obtaining the right point of contact for each company. Doing so can ensure accurate updates on the status of internet connectivity to building tenants.

Weather events can range from inconveniences to catastrophic emergencies but with proper planning, costly property damage and operational losses can be prevented so you can continue to offer a superior tenant experience when it is most critical.

Read more: Dark Fiber: A Digital Amenity to Set Your Building Apart

About John Meko, Director of Engineering, North America

John Meko - Email-finalJohn Meko is Director of Engineering, North America for WiredScore. John has assessed the connectivity infrastructure and in-building technology in over 1000 commercial office buildings in North America. Prior to joining WiredScore, John worked his way up through the telecom industry, at the AT&T Network Disaster Recovery Team and at Level 3 Communications. 

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