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Smarter Tech and Other Lessons from Hurricane Sandy


Last week's terrible natural disaster along the Eastern seaboard of the US again reminds us of the sudden and powerful force that nature can throw into our daily lives. Millions of lives were and still are disrupted while over 100 people lost their lives. This is a toll that is incalculable and for which we send out our thoughts and concerns for well-being to those afflicted and affected.




High tolls in Sandy's wake

According to the most recent tally from The Washington Post, the economic costs of Hurricane Sandy are escalating withthe most recent estimates topping US $60 billion – yes, billion – in damage alone; that is not including loss of work, income/wages, or business (see also IHS' recent report on the likely economic toll). During the storm, and now in the wake of the storm's widespread destruction and disruption, disaster plans have been implemented, tested, and inevitably revealed their weaknesses or even gaps due to unforeseen, culminating circumstances that make each crisis unique.

We are, of course, reminded not only of the horrific human tolls and losses, but also of the added stress that business disruptions place on those already in terrible situations. Whether loss of needed income from work shutdown, inability to receive goods and services, or other impacts arising from the sudden and often unexpected halt to business and government, natural disasters have a wide-circle of impact that can only be mitigated to varying extents.

Smart lessons to be learned?

One of the perhaps unforeseen lessons that Hurricane Sandy has taught or reminded many of is the extent of our dependence on communication, and particularly the need for improvements to backup systems for non-landline communication lines. With only roughly one-quarter of a day's backup power on-hand, cellular and cable communication providers have, for the most part, found themselves dealing with a serious network reliability problem. Unlike their brethren in the electrical utilities sector, communication service providers have not been as forthcoming in providing mapping of current outages and schedules for expected returns.

With millions of the affected people heavily reliant on cellular phone service, and a rising majority of them having dropped other, landline, phone service providers, the combined lack of power to recharge devices coupled with the lack of phone service even if you have battery power, has highlighted a critical Achilles Heel in reliance on smart wireless devices (SWDs). Yet so many are reliant on their smartphones as recent data underscore, and forecasts are rather definitive in the continued growth of this booming sector. For example, Samsung announced today that its Galaxy III phones have surpassed the 30 million devices sold mark five months after its release, this compares to Apple's late October announcement of having sold 26.9 million iPhones during 3Q12. Meanwhile, forecasts for 2013 are for continued smartphone "explosion" reaching 1.1 billion devices, according to a Citi Research ("Asia Pacific Technology," Nov. 2, 2012) report. Beyond the obvious market dominance of these two leading OEMs and the continued strength of smartphones, in light of the disruption from Hurricane Sandy, the next question is what impact will we see both in devices and in service providers going forward?

Feature-wise, the advantages of longer battery-life and even greater power efficiency from both the operating system and the device itself is going to be an obvious demand driver during the next cycle launches. Additionally, for the accessory market, innovative back-up charging or battery storage devices are likely to see a pricked interest from consumers leery of being caught without means for recharging their smartphones in a future event. The smartphones themselves are unlikely to take any hit from this disaster simply because having quick access to applications informing residents of where and how to locate services, communicate with others, and receive timely updates during the storm, was certainly essential. The greatest problems were beyond the devices themselves.

Communication and networking opportunities and challenges

It is more on the network carriers' side where the big questions around reliability and service continuity need to be addressed. There will likely be renewed momentum on the US' Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory requirements for how long of a backup power reserve service providers must have in place. Yet alongside of this requirement is the larger question of power storage; one that the electrical utilities are also facing as they strive to solve questions around the inclusion of renewable power sources and new visions of smart grid technologies.

More concretely though, with many cellular and cable service stations having suffered damage and in need of repair or replacement of their network equipment, there are obvious advantages to upgrading systems. Beyond a welcomed positive for the network and communications hardware sectors, the present opportunity is one that could renew competition and positioning within the service provider sector.

But this connectivity and reliability issue is not one for wireless carriers alone, wired communication providers such as Verizon are reporting as much as two-weeks until service may be restored to some customers, according to a recent article by ComputerWorld. What this indicates is that the reliability issue is not one of a back-up power solution alone, it goes beyond any back-and-forth between cellular providers and the FCC.

Smart grid opportunities?

Among the discussions increasing in momentum post-Sandy, are those around the models of what and how a smart grid could have altered the present disaster in terms of power and communications networks. One question posed by Public Broadcast System's NOVA, is the degree to which a smart grid that relies on the current electrical power grid structures could have provided benefits, the answers come from real events involving microgrids already in position in various US cities, such as in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The opportunities for improved solutions from the energy harvest market present real advantages not only to that market, but also in terms of benefits to providing solutions for electrical grid distribution. As Yole Developpement's recent research notes:

The market for energy harvesting devices will be worth about $19 million in 2012 and grow to about $45 million in 2013 […].

Over the period from 2011 to 2017 the market is forecast to demonstrate a 51 percent compound annual growth rate, rising in value to about $100 million in 2015 and $227 million in 2017. […]

Yole said that progress in reducing the power consumption of wireless sensor nodes for use in building and industrial applications would allow energy harvest devices to displace batteries.

Other calls are rising for engineering and energy grid solutions that can help global cities provide innovative electricity and communication networks in preparation for possibly escalating natural disasters and better prevent disasters from stricking today's complex grids.

New solutions will bring new opportunities and safeguards

As Environmental Leader notes,  the impact of increased natural disasters on business is intensifying, as based on research from PriceWaterhouseCoopers:

Some 85 percent of companies have more complex supply chains as a result of globalization, and adjusted climate forecasts mean businesses should expect climate change to have an even more destructive effect than previously assumed on supply chains, assets and infrastructure […].

The response and the best opportunities for improved risk and disruption preparedness comes from technological innovations and solutions that directly address the complex systems in place today – communications, power, and global supply chains. The result of the anticipated next wave of engineering solutions from our industry is not only improved conditions for those in the path of disasters, but also the ability to more rapidly return services to people and businesses and lesson the human and economic toll of such disasters.

Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.
Written on Monday, 05 November 2012 19:49 by Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.

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