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Network resilience and a changing climate

In its 2020 Anticipate, React, Recover report, the National Infrastructure Commission warned that the UK Government, regulators and infrastructure operators need to better anticipate future shocks and stresses by facing uncomfortable truths.

Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, the uncomfortable truth we all must face is that the climate crisis is taking hold, and citizens across the globe are facing more fires, floods and extreme weather than ever before.  

As part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure (CNI), the telecoms sector has a crucial role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. While telecoms companies have taken their responsibilities seriously – from transitioning to low carbon fleets to reducing network energy consumption – what about our changing climate and the resilience of the infrastructure itself?  

The Climate Change Committee has determined that UK telecoms infrastructure is at risk from all types of flooding, high winds and lightning strikes. In 2018, the telecoms sector completed its remaining programme of installing permanent flood defences, with regulator Ofcom revising security and resilience guidance to include specific flood risk and other climate related requirements.  

The most serious climate-related issue facing telecoms resilience is interacting risks (CCRA risk In1). CNI is a system of systems, with telecoms underpinning how many other infrastructure systems operate, and power resilience a reciprocal risk for communications networks. Telecoms engineers may be unable to access sites if transport routes are impacted, or high winds bringing down power lines impact physical infrastructure.  

But like permanent flood defences, the telecoms sector has mitigations in place and on the horizon.  

Emerging telecoms equipment used in the UK is specified to international design standards, therefore installing fibre optic cabling in UK networks—designed to operate in global extremes of temperature—embeds resilience to climate change. Network management techniques also mitigate risk. So, while 5G architecture (including network slicing, edge compute, densification and IoT) presents elements of complexity in the market, the adoption of network virtualisation, data analytics, AI, and Machine Learning can help manage radio outages without causing widespread disruption.  

A great example of this network management and monitoring in action is the Climate Resilience Demonstrator (CReDo), a joint effort between Anglian Water, BT and UK Power Networks to develop a UK-first digital twin across energy, water and telecoms networks, demonstrating how connected data can improve climate adaptation. Furthermore, the Government’s efforts in 5G diversification should help distribute the global supply chain across regions, aiding network resilience and flexibility.  

Further action is needed. As set out in its 5G diversification policy, Government should look to take a leading role in shaping and adopting international and intersectoral resilience standards. Ofcom should strengthen its engagement with industry on both climate adaptation and climate risk: techUK stands ready as a willing partner for both the regulator and the EC-RRG in this work. As the forthcoming Telecoms Security Bill enforces a new security framework to protect UK networks from cyber-attacks, now is the moment to redouble efforts in protecting our networks from the effects of a changing climate.  

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techUK's Communications Infrastructure Programme brings together government, the regulator, telecom companies and its stakeholders around four themes; shared infrastructure, security and resilience, unlicensed spectrum and our 5G ecosystem. We do so to lower the cost to the sector of deployment, ensure confidence in networks, spur innovation and unlock value for all parties in 5G. This is delivered through a mix of thought leadership, multilateral engagement and ecosystem building.

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