Published on May 26th, 2021
We frequently discuss the “end of the civilized world as we know it”, and one of these days we might be right, however, given the more realistic perspective, the larger probability is going to be a large-scale natural disaster that crushes the currently communication channels, either by eliminating the power sources, or by overwhelming the standard communication channels to the point where it can be considered a failure. To this end, we need to consider the standard channels that most common Americans are going to use in the midst of a natural disaster. Today, we’ll discuss the failure of:
- The Internet (all associated communication channels)
- Television (digital or analog)
- Cellular communications (no cellular towers of any speed)
- AM/FM Radio
With all the big players in wide-range communications in the toilet, we look at some that may remain (obviously depending on what the natural disaster (and the fallout) is). Let’s talk about the possibility of what’s left:
- Satellite communications (no Sat phone connectivity (this is a special case))
- Shortwave Radio (UHF/VHF)
Obviously (as we discussed on a previous episode) a powerful EMP emitted from the Sun could potentially damage all the above listed technologies, to a point where we’ll go back to the days of the “pony express” with real (hands on) messaging.
Greetings to all my friends (both new and old), to my wonderful family, my fellow Alaskans, and my fellow Americans, wherever you are. Welcome to the Alaska Outlaw podcast, I am the Alaska Outlaw, thank you so much for joining me this week. This week I hope to introduce you to a topic to consider to add to your preps. Your comms. Now, honestly there are some critical ones you’ll need to know, especially during a natural disaster. The key here is to not break the bank while trying to ensure communications with distant loved ones, so let’s talk about some basic principles. Before we get after it today, I’d like to make sure that, for those of you who seek peace and harmony, be sure to check out the Alaska Outlaw Forn-sidr podcast at http://forn-sidr.akoutlaw.com. Some good stuff for you there. Also, another second just to give a shout-out for our sponsors and affiliates:
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So, our discussion today starts with identifying all the potential, consumer-level, communications channels that are available in the marketplace.
- Basic “2 pair” copper connections. This is your standard “home@ phone, or landline. In the recent past this was accomplished using analog lines leading from your phone unit itself, out through the junction box on your house to the nearest pedestal. There it connected to a larger connection which accumulates several blocks together, terminating at the phone companies large switch which then hands the traffic off to interstate carriers.
- Cellular using standard cellular traffic. There’s are the big ones you hear about on commercials everyday… 3G, 4G, 5G, and all the rest. The problem with cellular is that they are dependent on cell towers for reception. If your power is out, chances are the towers could be as well. In a recent life I witnessed many cell towers today are battery and/or solar powered. In any case, the reality is that these lines will be buried under the load of everyone calling someone, including first responders and the medical community, and there is only so much bandwidth.
- Analog using some of the older stuff. In case you didn’t know these older technologies are still around. That’s right analog cellular technology is deployed in many locations, as an extremely low-cost alternative to regular cell space. The speeds are typically much slower, and a very limited bandwidth, however, it could do in a pinch.
- Satellite communication typically involves ensuring you can see the damn satellite, making it somewhat unreliable in the furthest points north or south. However, the “sat” phone wouldn’t be as exposed to local catastrophes as the other technologies would be. Today, while the actual phones are still pricy, service is actually fairly moderate in costs. In addition, the bandwidth would be fairly more available due to a more limited subscriber base.
- Internet will be probably limited or non-existent. Most internet connections are brought by, essentially, the same infrastructure that brings, or brought standard 2 pair connections. Yea, I know cable modems, DSL modems, whatever, the idea is the same. The technologies involves the same frailties that the other ground based technologies have.
- Radio (UHF/VHF). So, the last, but certainly not the least, is the older analog signals of short-wave, ultra high frequency (UHF), or very high frequency (VHF) radio signals. These waves float across the open skies in large semi-circles, high and low, being intercepted only by large constructs or natural boundaries that can reflect the signals either; back toward the sender, or off on a tangent angle. With batteries and solar panels, these can be fairly resilient.
So, with an overview of the tech available, all of them require power, and a clear path to the intended recipient. All of the technology listed above is completely dependent on the environment surrounding it. So depending on the disaster, most if not all, this technology would be rendered inoperable, so we have some other considerations to ponder.
Let’s talk momentarily about where these will fail during a natural disaster. Most of them depend on either: infrastructure, or antennas connected to the infrastructure, so ultimately our single point of failure becomes the inter connectivity of these networks. Now radio signaling depends on open spaces, and line of sight to the next leg of the network journey. When considering what part of the communication channels to use immediately following a natural disaster, let’s talk about the bandwidth (or how many connections it can handle).
- Land lines. These are going to be pretty slammed with very little or no availability because first responders of all sorts, plus faxes, and possibly dial up data. I remember following the November 2018 quake here in Alaska, analog and digital land lines were giving substantial busy signals. We maxed out the bandwidth on all these types of services.
- Digital cellular traffic. This was next up on the slammed and overwhelmed list. With many field services operations using this technology, it quickly got overwhelmed in the last large-scale event here in Alaska, and still others had their calls dropped if they were lucky enough to get through. Even with the largest connection there is, full phone conversations will become miracles.
- Analog cellular traffic. Although not as heavily used, the reserved space for these services on higher end service links was quickly overrun and these saw the same issues that faced the digital subscribers. However the bright spot here is another reservation within this space that provides for text messaging or SMS (short messaging service), and it’s fancy cousin, MMS (multimedia messaging service). While MMS didn’t fair so well, the limited bandwidth, and effective multiplexing of the SMS platform provided very reliable messaging even when the remaining bandwidth was consumed. So, ultimately, lesson learned here, communicate with loved ones using SMS to ensure pertinent information is relayed.
- Satellite communications. At the same time my cellular phone was locked up with busy signals, my sat phone was communicating clearly and effectively with other sat phone users. The log-jam on the standard infrastructure almost completely crumbled under a smaller quake, with a smaller population. My sat phone never missed a beat throughout, however, I know as an Alaskan, if the northern lights are out, my sat phone is useless. Unlike the ground based infrastructure which is impervious to solar flares, satellites are completely disrupted. So, there are times when the sat phone is not our friend.
- Data networks. Data networks also carry all the other ground based communications, however, much of it has been threaded a little differently to help alleviate some of the traffic. Depending on the internet connection type, this really can be a hit or miss technology to use during a cataclysmic event.
- UHF/VHF analog radio. The good news here is that there are very few users to log up the bandwidth, however there are some stipulations that need to be followed. Firstly, the recipient needs to have a similar device, and must be listening. Secondly, it has to be a fairly straight shot between sender and receiver. While the lower frequencies produce larger waves, thereby avoiding some obstacles, depending on how much power you put into it, the signal may deteriorate fairly rapidly.
Matching all the pros and cons on this, we can see for a fully effective communication platform, a hybrid of these systems would produce the best outcome.
In consideration for the earlier discussed pros and cons, and the enhanced platform created by a hybrid, let me describe my setup.
- Firstly, I carry a dual sim cellular device that gives me two different cellular networks to choose from. Where I’m at, this means my local carrier GCI is my primary, with AT&T as my secondary. In addition, I have solar chargers that can keep them powered if the power was out at where I was. All in all I pay a little over $100 a month for unlimited call potential for this configuration. In both configuration sides, I have SMS available, and most of the people I need to talk to know they could get a text after an event.
- Next up is our redundant Satellite phone. Mostly my family and I use this when we get off the beaten path here in Alaska. However, the other side of this is that it costs me about $90 a month, and has been fairly reliable when cell service isn’t available.
- Next up, I have both: handheld, and vehicle mounted, UHF/VHF radios. Although I accept the limitation of their range, both types have “scan” functions which allows me to find someone already broadcasting, to helping me transmit further, or contacting the right people. The initial investment was about $300, and there is no monthly charge.
- Finally, like every other human being today in a first world country, we too have our standard cable modem for internet connectivity. At a Gb to the house, it’s plenty fast, however my wife and I have pretty low expectations when it comes to jumping on after a large-scale event. Reality says, priority goes to other things using the bandwidth with very little set aside for consumer data.
As I’ve said a thousand times, the idea is that you get what you can afford, however, with the declining costs of these higher end devices, services themselves aren’t outrageous anymore. With much more infrastructure in the ground, and in the atmosphere, connectivity is getting better every day. The idea here is that you can communicate. Whether it be to a family at home from your work, family across the country, emergency services, or checking up on family and friends, being able to communicate regardless of the adversities, is the difference between surviving and thriving.
As always my friends, I am humbled that you have taken the time to spend with us. I hope I have given you some food for thought that you consider your communications plans in your overall survival plan. Remember, be safe out there, keep your head on a swivel…. Peace.