Building Blocks for High Tech Ecosystems: Steel and Concrete

With the sophistication of today’s gadgets, it’s easy to forget that the media transmissions that bring these electronic wonders to life are coming from heavy and rugged infrastructure: cables on poles or buried underground, transmission antennas on giant towers, and communication satellites in orbit around the earth.

The vulnerability of this infrastructure (especially for wireless transmissions), as well as the expense and danger of building and maintaining it, can be easily forgotten until Mother Nature sends a reminder. Perhaps no other year in recent memory illustrates this more than 2017 in the Northern Hemisphere.

Two massive hurricanes in September brought down entire communications systems with St. Maarten and The U.S. Virgin Islands hit especially hard by Irma, and Puerto Rico taking a massive blow from Maria. Broadcast and communications towers came down, and on-the-ground telecommunications and networking equipment were ruined by flooding.

Months later communications systems have only been partially and intermittently restored and only a handful of the 18 TV stations in Puerto Rico and The U.S. Virgin Islands are now on air. Irma did her fair share of damage in Southern Florida, as well, but was spared the communications devastation experienced on the islands.  Southeast Texas endured epic flooding as Tropical Storm Harvey temporarily halted telephone, internet and cable service by soaking everything in its path.

Not all disasters are delivered by Mother Nature. Building and maintaining communications tower infrastructure (mainly for cell and terrestrial broadcast services)—which is expensive and dangerous—has already claimed at least 6 lives this year in the U.S. from fatal accidents that occurred during cellular or broadcast antenna installations.

Many variables not necessarily associated with the strength of the infrastructure can contribute to these tragedies. Nevertheless, communications towers (especially those that house broadcast antennas with a long life span) may be lacking the latest technological and engineering advances. The transmission sites also contain shelters housing networking equipment and other electronics essential to keeping the systems functioning 24/7. Older transmission sites don’t have the benefit of the latest materials and construction techniques.

In some respects, this situation is akin to the conundrum of spectrum demand vs. capacity. Today’s use of spectrum for sophisticated bandwidth-hungry wireless transmissions primarily relies on long-established methods. Innovations for spectrum use have not kept up with the acute demand for sending high-quality audio, video and data transmissions over the airwaves. Industry and government agencies that have been steadily losing their spectrum-use privileges to mobile-phone operators are joining forces to develop technology (such as wideband and new modulation techniques) that will enable more efficient spectrum use as well as self-preservation.

Investors and policymakers’ crush on of the sexy tech devices and the software development that goes behind them may be neglecting the fundamentals—like infrastructure and efficient use of spectrum—that are essential for a sustainable tech ecosystem.

After all, today’s revered tech devices like smartphones and big-screen TVs are all dependent upon the physically built environment constructed with steel, re-enforced concrete, thousands of miles of cable, and massive transmission antennas and satellites. Perhaps infrastructure should get as much tech-industry attention and investment as does smartphone-app development.