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February 25, 2013 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Let's say you have a global disaster where the traditional web is no longer available (all ISPs are down, or a virus/cyber-attack incapacitates the web for entire regions of the world). What are the data communication alternatives in this sort of context? Is anyone still running a BBS? Does anyone even have a dialup modem anymore? Is there something better than this?

Is there an established alternative, much like Short Wave Radio is an established global emergency communication network? Are there ad hoc networks people can join given the right software and hardware?

What would the solution be, and what equipment would be required, POTS? BBS software? The Canadian military used IRC as an alternate communication channel in preparation for Y2K. Has anything evolved beyond that? Is anyone spearheading an alternative or planning for this?
posted by furtive to Technology (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
A few years ago I had just taken the CERT course, and thought that was reason to get a HAM radio (because I'd gotten my license for other reasons), but then was at WhereCamp and talking to people who'd responded to the earthquake crisis in Haiti, and they all said "learn now how to repurpose satellite TV dishes to do point-to-point WiFi".

Which makes sense: There's lots of software to do point-to-point, the hardware is cheap and readily available, modern integrated antennas make some of this a little harder, but the techniques involved can actually be useful in the real world today.

And the WiFi stuff requires a hell of a lot less power and has a lot higher throughput than any of the HAM band alternatives.
posted by straw at 10:53 AM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Read up on UUCP and FidoNet, which can be used to create a network with intermittent dialup access. UUCP stems from the Unix world, and FidoNet has a BBS pedigree. As of a few years ago, FidoNet was still relatively popular in Russia and Ukraine, and I imagine it's not completely moribund.
posted by zsazsa at 10:58 AM on February 25, 2013

Traditional Data is in closed networks. The Internet is actually comprised of these networks, they're just accessed by portals made available to anyone with some kind of data service.

So what won't be available would email, or websites. Data will still transmit across the networks, it'll just be across closed, private networks.

If entities wanted, they could provide dial-up access via modems or ISDN connections into their private networks. (This is how the old services used to work, like Prodigy). They probably won't though as the cost of maintaining the lines to do this is prohibitively expensive. Also, the equipment isn't available anymore.

Old school data would be something like Telex or Fax on the Public Switched Voice Network.

Texting would still be available as it's not web dependent.

This is the priority for data/voice restoration in an emergency:

Red Cross/FEMA (Or governmental disaster ministry)
Local Government/Emergency services (e911)
Banks, Fuel pipelines, utilities, first responders, Hospitals

Everyone else can and will wait.

I managed restoration efforts for BellSouth for Hurricane Katrina, so I have some experience.

But any connectivity in an open network environment assumes that the Internet exists in it's physical, data links and in the servers hosting the various sites. So if that's gone, there's no internet and you'd have to build it from scratch.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:59 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Voice networks use a lot of VoIP on the back end, even if you have a pots line to the phone, so Dialup is probably out.
posted by empath at 11:17 AM on February 25, 2013

HAM radio operators can do low-bandwidth data transmissions. There's packet radio as well. LANs would still be fine, and it doesn't take much to connect them up over microwave, so universities would likely get re-connected with each other in short order.
posted by odinsdream at 11:26 AM on February 25, 2013

You may want to look into how people got messages in to and out of countries where there were big internet shutdowns or crises such as Egypt and China and Syria. A few example articles

- "Google and Twitter have posted dial up numbers, so users in Syria can connect to the Web, as long as fixed phone lines remain open"
- "The blackout, which lasted nearly a week, forced activists to find more innovative workaround solutions, such as setting up FTP accounts to send videos to international news organizations. Another solution they found was using landlines to connect to internet services in neighboring countries by calling international numbers with older dial-up modems.... They even resorted to using Morse code, fax machines, and ham radio to get the word out about events on the ground, and the website for the activist group We Rebuild transcribed transmissions from Egyptian amateur radio stations and posted resources for circumventing the blackout" (more)
- "The CIA smuggled Xerox machines in the Soviet Union to spread samizdat, the individual distribution of banned books and magazines, while the protestors in Tienanmen Square used fax machines to communicate with the world."
- "activists are building alternative mesh networks that can never be blocked, filtered or shut down"

The thing to remember is that a network is just two computers talking to each other for the most part. So you can set up small regional networks with currently available technology. It's making the big hops across large distances (and hammering out protocols so they're mutually intelligible) which is the challenge.
posted by jessamyn at 11:29 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Things within metro area are not too difficult - directional antennae and wifi gets you a whole lot of connectivity.

For long-haul ham radio connection, HF packet radio generally runs at 300baud. So, that's a painfully slow link, but it doesn't rely on any infrastructure beyond some people with antennae that can hear each other.

But for any of it, I think routing the traffic will be the problem. Once people start talking, the tendency will be to adopt what lots of other people are using - the network effect. Depending on how fast things ramp up and who's involved in setting things up, something like UUCP "!" routing might work - there are still systems out there that understand the routing. It does require the sending client to know how to route things and you are relying on intermediate machines to agree to transit the traffic.

It depends, of course, on what you're routing around. If you're routing around intentional interference in the form of censorship, then you have a different set of problems compared to routing around killer squids uprooting and eating all the undersea cables and aliens shooting our comm satellites out of orbit.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:47 AM on February 25, 2013

If ISPs are down then regular phone calls aren't going to fare much better. Low-speed modems over HAM radio will probably be the only channel.
posted by GuyZero at 12:01 PM on February 25, 2013

Cell phone text messages?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:13 PM on February 25, 2013

This is what ham radio is for. Check out Hellschreiber or the superior PSK31. It allows for text communication even through terrible radio reception, over a very narrow bandwidth. You can fit 50 text streams into what would normally be a low-fi AM signal.

Ham radio is NOT an acronym, by the way.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:45 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dial-up modems are built into most laptops and pretty much all desktop PCs, but I don't think BBS's can step in. You need a community and the technical know-how, and BBS's don't have either any more. They also take some time to establish and gather steam. If the crisis lasted several years (and people knew it was going to last years), then they might come into play in significant ways, but at the same time it's hard to imagine an ongoing post-apocalypse where the manufacturing capability to build and maintain computers and modems persists but not the same capability for ISPs and the internet.

Many emergency services have their own radio systems. Ham enthusiests too, as mentioned. I think for the guy in the street through, local pockets of wi-fi would be what they turn to - everyone already has a transmitter and receiver (or six), and knowledge on how to set them up is commonplace, while knowledge of how to use them is ubiquitous.

For an alternative look at want real-world data, consider how people use technology in under-developed nations that have computers but lack network infrastructure. In some areas I think wi-fi is used locally, with cellular or HAM for distance (ie heavily bottlenecked but not cut off). Under that kind of set up (very similar to FidoNet etc), it wouldn't surprise me if BBS software (or something like it) still thrived.
posted by anonymisc at 10:51 AM on February 26, 2013

Just to add on about the ham radio - my dad is currently in Honduras providing communications for a team of doctors who are serving the small communities out in the mountains/jungles. He can send/receive plain text email over the ham radio, but he did request that when we reply to a message that we don't include the original message since it uses up radio time.
posted by CathyG at 10:59 AM on February 26, 2013

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