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08/06/2005 Archived Entry: "communications preparedness"

I've been thinking more about how we would cope if we suddently lost Internet service. This need not be due to an attack on Internet routers; it's just as likely that the government would shut down Internet service. (Consider this: if Tony Blair has his way, merely visiting the wrong web site will get you deported.) But the most likely cause would be an extended power failure.

So if you rely on the Internet for work, or basic communications, what will you do when the lights go out? Here's what we're doing to be prepared.

When the power fails

Wired telephone. During the blackout of '03, our local Red Cross manager couldn't be contacted. Her home phone was cordless, and cordless phones require power to work! So do many "full-featured" telephones. Make sure you have at least one old-fashioned telephone, that plugs into a wall jack and does not require an AC plug. These are powered by the phone line, and the phone company has backup power for about 48 hours.

Cell phones aren't as useful, for two reasons. First, the cell towers don't have backup power for nearly as long. (A few hours, tops, is my guess.) Second, cell phone systems get saturated very quickly in times of emergency. During that same blackout, most of the cellphone owners I know found that they couldn't get a line.

Wired phones have a limited number of "trunk" lines for long-distance connections, but they always work for local calls (within the same exchange).

AM/FM radio. Every emergency preparedness guide tells you this, and I'm going to repeat it: make sure you have a battery-operated AM/FM radio, and plenty of spare batteries. Most radio stations can operate on emergency power for quite a long time. Television takes an order of magnitude more power to produce and transmit, so it's not likely to be as dependable in a long blackout.

When the Internet stops

If the Internet is a tool of your trade -- perhaps you use it to communicate with customers, perhaps you even deliver your work electronically -- you'll need to have a backup plan if it stops working some day. We've all become accustomed to instant communication, and with postal mail taking up to a week these days, it's no way to run a business.

Fax machine. Next to the plain old telephone, this will be the fastest means of communication. You can send documents, contracts, and drawings, and it's convenient for crossing multiple time zones. Make sure you have an old-fashioned fax machine that plugs into a phone jack. Internet-based fax services won't work when the Internet is down.

Modem. If, like me, you have to deliver large volumes of data, keep a modem installed in your computer -- even if you have high-speed Internet service. I imagine some people have forgotten, and others never knew, that modems can connect computers directly and not just through the Internet. Make sure that you have the software for this (e.g., Hyperterminal on older Windows systems).

Backup Internet service. In case the problem is local to your ISP, and not Internet-wide, have a spare Internet account with a different provider. If you have high-speed service, sign up for a dial-up account with another ISP. Since it's a backup account, you don't need unlimited hours; and "starter" accounts are only a few dollars a month.

After our last experience with the phone company, I now insist that we have two Internet services on different media. This means wireless, satellite, or cable-TV Internet for the primary service, and telephone for the backup. This may not be possible for those limited to DSL -- both DSL and dial-up use wired telephone service. But at least have your backup with a different ISP. Most of our ISP failures have not been with our phone connection, but instead with the ISP's connection to the rest of the network.


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