Few things disrupt society more than the loss of internet service, an inevitable calamity that occurs whenever the electric grid goes down. So why aren’t we developing a resilient internet, one powered by microgrids?
That’s the mission of a new Massachusetts company that wants to create an internet that can withstand flooding, hurricanes and other effects of climate change.
The costs of internet outages can be steep. A June 2020 research report from Information Technology Intelligence Consulting found that the average cost of a single hour of downtime is more than $300,000 for 88% of mid-size and large enterprises. The survey reached this conclusion after polling more than 1,000 firms worldwide between March and June.
Helping businesses avoid this loss adds new value to microgrid projects, said David Theodore, co-founder & CTO, Climate Resilient Internet.
The company’s ambitious plan is to create a process for certifying resilient internet systems and offering them under an internet-as-a-service model through existing internet providers. The systems would be offered as an alternative or an addition to tråditional service. Microgrid providers could also include the service in their projects, said Theodore.
Climate Resilient Internet is now involved in a microgrid project in Chelsea, Massachusetts, an effort by the City of Chelsea and neighborhood organizers at Green Roots Chelsea. The project is one of 11 communities in Greater Boston that received initial funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The microgrid will serve the community, including low-income housing, critical infrastructure and small businesses, said Theodore. The project sponsors expect to receive funding by the end of the year and complete the project — including resilient internet — in a 12-month timeline, he said.
“We have always considered resilient communication as important as resilient power in community microgrids,” said David Dayton, founder, chairman and treasurer of Clean Energy Solutions, which is technical consultant for the Chelsea project.
That includes reliable internet as well as cell phone service, he said. “A dependable network of residents, caregivers, small businesses, municipal and nonprofit organizations is essential in enabling vulnerable residents to ‘prosper in place’ in emergencies.”
Uses fixed wireless tech
In Chelsea and other communities, Theodore’s idea is to overcome the vulnerabilities of fiber optic cable internet — what’s used commonly today — with a different type of technology that Theodore marketed before his new company was formed.
Most internet systems are based on fiber optic cable that’s often buried underground, Theodore said. When you send a text message, it may go from your phone to the nearest cell tower and then to underground internet data centers that are generally owned by carriers such as Verizon or AT&T.
Fiber optic cable is the technology of choice because it can handle large amounts of data. However, internet data centers are vulnerable to flooding and other weather events spurred by climate change.
For example, when Superstorm Sandy knocked out power in New York City, the internet was down for weeks. When Hurricane Harvey knocked out power in Houston, the internet went down, too.
Theodore’s idea is to create an internet based on fixed wireless technology. “You have an antenna on a rooftop of a bank or school, it transmits to another antenna via microwave radio.”
History behind company
Theodore launched this technology in 1987 for his company, Microwave Bypass, which later became Meridian Microwave.
“Our wireless solution became the solution of choice, worldwide, connecting the world’s first dotcom owners to the internet,” along with major universities, he said. But fiber optics became more popular because of its ability to handle more data.
Now, with his new company, he’s deploying this technology to provide resilient internet. “Essentially, we’re using tech that we ourselves innovated,” he said.
The components include an antenna that looks like a large dinner plate, a transmitter and receiver. The devices would be drilled into a concrete, brick or steel frame on a rooftop.
“If you are a university or hospital, you get an antenna drilled into your building so it survives 150 mile per hour winds,” he said. “Our concept isn’t just a wireless telecom solution. It needs reliable sustainable power through microgrids.”
Theodore wants to spread the word about the need for a more resilient internet and create a process for certifying internet that’s resilient. To accomplish this goal, he’s talking to internet service providers and industry groups.
After creating a certification process, his company would train providers worldwide so they can offer resilient internet as a service and guarantee it won’t fail, he said.
“During floods people stand on their house with a ‘help’ sign written in magic marker because they can’t use their phones.”
Under his plan, a network service provider would connect clients and his company would monitor that connection.
“If you’re interested in the service and you’re in Chicago, we introduce you to providers in Chicago. The provider would build the network connection to the client,” he said. That connection would include certified hardware and installation procedures.
“We would bill the customer, the provider would get their share and we would get a small percentage of the monthly revenue which we would use for advocacy and awareness raising.”
At some point, residential customers might have a smartphone app that allows them to access the resilient internet if they’re trapped in a flood, for example. Under this scenario, a local internet provider might include this option as part of its service.
That service would be especially helpful when people are trapped in floods.
“During floods people stand on their house with a ‘help’ sign written in magic marker because they can’t use their phones,” Theodore said.
What’s more, with a resilient internet, companies could save thousands of dollars by avoiding internet outages. This could be an important selling point for microgrid developers and might help propel microgrid projects forward, Theodore argued.
“It just stands to reason that the internet is an added value for microgrids.”
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