How much of the telephone and Internet systems would survive a nuke?
December 28, 2008 7:40 AM   Subscribe

Would the landline telephone system be completely down after a nuclear strike on ~20 U.S. cities?

I'm an avid post-apocalypse buff, and I've been watching Jericho on Netflix's Watch Instantly lately. I love the show. But a few points of realism bug me, specifically, the lack of communication by radio / phone / Internet in the show.

Would the landline telephone network actually be down as portrayed in the show? I could be wrong, but wouldn't regional parts of it still survive? Or is the assumption that the bombs would have screwed up trunks/backbones and major switching centers? Or maybe general lack of electricity would kill it?

In the same vein, how much of Internet access would survive in the "Nukes hitting 20 major cities" scenario? It's supposed to be distributed, but again, maybe the idea is that big trunks were severed?

The sense of isolation and lack of communication and news in the show makes it more ominous and mysterious, but I somehow doubt it's realistic. I mean, if nothing else, there'd be Ham radio operators relaying news, right?
posted by wastelands to Technology (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
EMP would knock out switching centers and most anything electronic; panicked people would overwhelm any switches that survived. Similar for the internet; hardened military nodes that survived would likely be dedicated to military communications and not serving civilian communications.
posted by orthogonality at 7:53 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Long distance telephone services would probably be down or at least greatly disrupted/limited. Local telephone services would probably continue to work for at least awhile if the central office and telephone cables are intact.

COs work on batteries and are designed to continue to work for awhile after a power failure. They also have backup generators, but eventually they would need fuel (usually diesel or natural gas).

However, some telephone customers work out of remote terminals, which are "big steel boxes" located a distance from the COs. They have very limited battery power and most will run out of power within a day (sometimes within a few hours).

IP networks are designed to reroute automatically. So there may be limited Internet access.

BTW, a lot of people don't have an old-fashioned telephone company powered phone in their homes/businesses. Instead they only have cordless phones or phone systems that require power. So if they lose power, they won't be able to make calls, even if the phone system is operable.
posted by 14580 at 8:22 AM on December 28, 2008

Back in the 1980's, I worked at a large Bell Labs facility as a security guard. The facility was dedicated to producing the worlds best telephone switching systems. One room had 30 mainframes in it, dedicated only to testing these systems.

One section of the building was top secret. We were not allowed inside and access was controlled by a tumbler lock. I always wondered what was in there.

One night, while doing checks on a small service building outside the main building I came upon a carelessly posted sheet of phone numbers that gave away the name (and thus the purpose) of the top secret section of the building. They were building a top secret phone network designed to survive a nuclear war.

I think what they were working on is now a lot more out in the open, here. I'm certain its hardened and capable of handling such things.

Eventually they'd work to contact outlying communities.

However, I don't know if EMP permanently fries things or only temporarily knocks them out.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:41 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Who's envisioning a "20 U.S. cities" scenario? It's beyond what any terrorist organization could pull off. And Russia or China couldn't nuke even one city without inviting retaliation that would wipe them off the map. So if they launch, it would be for all the marbles. At which point Internet access will be the least of your concerns.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:00 AM on December 28, 2008

I think it also is a good bet that most small towns are going to have at least one ham radio operator, or at least someone who owns a battery operated shortwave radio receiver.
posted by 14580 at 9:01 AM on December 28, 2008

Response by poster: Who's envisioning a "20 U.S. cities" scenario?

That's the premise of the show. In the show they imply that a corrupt official in the U.S. government helped with the attack somehow. I'm only partway through the first season, so I can't say more than that.

But, yeah, another thing that isn't so realistic.
posted by wastelands at 9:09 AM on December 28, 2008

No way there's telephone service. First off, a telephone switching station requires a lot of power. Your hypothized strike would most likely take out all major nuclear plants or at the very least the EMP wave would destroy all unhardened electronics for miles past each strike. You can kiss all your power lines gone too. There are probably diesel generators that can deliver power for a couple of hours, but after there's nothing.

I think you need to consider how fragile infrastructure really is. A serious, but not rare, storm routinely takes out power and phone lines in a typical city. A major flood takes out all the infrastructure for miles around. Katrina victims stuck on their rooftops were exactly making phone calls. A nuclear explosion is much, much more destructive.

Post-apocalyptic stories are fun because they are fantasy, not because they're realistic. Theyre about as realistic as computer hacking scenes in movies.

Lastly, do you think the enemy would simply let survivors go on their own after a nuclear strike? There would be a conventional strike afterwards to take out the remaining infrastructure. Heck, it might even be chemical and biological weapons. What use holding back after dropping 20 nukes? Not only wont the phone work, you'll be starving and freezing and being shot at by Spetsnaz snipers.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:28 AM on December 28, 2008

Response by poster: Lastly, do you think the enemy would simply let survivors go on their own after a nuclear strike? There would be a conventional strike afterwards to take out the remaining infrastructure.

In the show, the enemy is not an external nation. It's domestic terrorism, from what I can gather (again, haven't finished watching it).
posted by wastelands at 9:57 AM on December 28, 2008

This probably depends in large part on the specific cities involved. Some cities outside of the top 20 such as seattle/portland, boston, and buffalo are probably sufficiently integrated (for data at least, and probably power to a degree) with the canadian system that they'd be able to get by, eventually, with something like rolling greyouts. I think the international relief effort is worth considering; there would be still be functional oil and gas lines from the north and from the gulf, and I'm not sure how many nuclear stations are actually in the blast radius of top-twenty urban cores. Obviously the lost infrastructure would be a big problem, but power companies know how to put up lines in a hurry, and service might be restored in outlying cities surprisingly quickly.
posted by cmyr at 5:59 PM on January 1, 2009

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