If access to the internet was suddenly limited, what are our options?
January 20, 2019 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Lets say there was a earthquake in the Bay or Seattle area or someone in whitehouse decided to use his "emergency powers" to cut web based communications/access to the internet in the USA (I realize this may be mean global shut down) what are our options to get and share information with others?

Satellite connections like https://www.viasat.com and Hughs are commercial options, how about shortwave radio based options? or non-commercial options including secure packet radio implementations (like GTP over GPRS)? KNL Networks looks interesting, other options?

It would seem like local mesh network radios and then longer connectivity solutions would be a must for folks ranging from the merely sensible to hardcore preppers.
posted by specialk420 to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, what is still working? Assuming it's literally just the internet that's down we'd still have phones, radios, mail service, and word of mouth, just off the top of my head. If more infrastructure is down besides the internet, that would change the equation.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:05 AM on January 20

The vast majority of Internet services (that Americans use, at least) are located in the U.S. (Remember, we invented the damn thing!) The bigger websites are more or less decentralized too -- when you load Google or Twitter or Facebook, that data isn't coming from California, but from a regional datacenter. DNS is also a decentralized system. Certificate authorities aren't, but you don't necessarily need those.

If the West Coast fell into the ocean (damn you, Lex Luthor!), or hyperintelligent sharks ate all the undersea fiber cables, or both, the Internet would be mostly unusable in the short term, that's definitely true. But assuming that society hasn't collapsed in the meantime, there's no reason that can't be routed around, eventually, with some engineering effort. One of the design goals of the original ARPANet was to still be usable after a nuclear war, after all. We'd still have an Internet, just not the Internet.

But if you're wondering "what can we use that isn't copper or fiber?", I think the big one you're missing is microwaves.
posted by neckro23 at 10:05 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]

Radio. The SF Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (NERT) program trains people to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, and getting volunteer teams linked up to first responders by HAM radio is part of the plan.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:12 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]

Newspapers? Back in the day there used to be several editions per day and multiple competing ones in medium-big cities that vied for readers' attention.

Ham radio for sure - every public school and library for sure have one (and someone trained to run it), and lots of other folks have one too, some for hobby-ing and some as part of a committed emergency-activated network set up for this very purpose.

(On preview, what deludingmyself said.)
posted by Temeraria at 10:49 AM on January 20

I wonder how vulnerable other systems are if the internet is not working. Are power and transport, for instance, dependent in any way? Even newspaper production might have some link somewhere that is online. ( I don't know that this is so, just speculating.)

I also read somewhere that transmitting Morse code over radio takes less power than voice (and by the way, is ham radio now connected too?) so maybe learn that. You can always use it with mirrors or a smokey fire.
posted by Botanizer at 11:16 AM on January 20

On 9/11 cellphone networks got jammed to the point of being unusable. Best to just assume we'll all be screwed. Everything depends on the internet at this point.
posted by bleep at 11:49 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:15 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the comments. I am specifically interested in radio solutions, either shortwave, satellite, or mesh. What should we have on hand if cellular an landlines go down/are down.
posted by specialk420 at 12:20 PM on January 20

You've asked three different questions here, all kinda chatfiltery. "What happens if an earthquake takes out the Internet in a region?", "what happens if the US government shuts off the Internet", and "what are radio solutions for networking". They are all radically different scenarios.

To answer your most recent question, there are a huge variety of radio solutions for Internet access. Fixed wireless is in regular use in cities (MonkeyBrains in SF) and rural areas (like the Nevada County WISP, SmarterBroadband). These all work by configuring a relatively static network of WiFi antennas pointed at each other, then managing the network via software.

There's also a huge body of work on more ad hoc mesh wireless networks. The US military are the experts here, and I'm not qualified to review their work. But self-assembling / self-healing networks are an active area of interest.

A third option is more broadcast oriented networks. Whether good ol ham packet radio, or more sophisticated digital transmissions like what we do now with FM radio and HDTV. I guess that's where shortwave would play. Those technologies tend to be one-way broadcast, not bidirectional communication.

You also asked about satellite. Almost all satellite networks currently rely on a wired or fixed wireless backhaul operating on the earth. Folks are starting to talk about mesh networking in orbit but it's not currently a thing.
posted by Nelson at 12:42 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]

I'm having a hard time understanding what you're driving at. Yes, we could use various radio-based technologies to communicate. We do that today, both as part of the internet and also in parallel with it. We could continue doing that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:53 PM on January 20

Ham radio is probably going to be the most resilient thing: "While it is unlikely that ham radio will be able to replace all existing communications, the forte of this pool of volunteers is establishing critical communications under less-than-optimal conditions. For hams with solar-powered equipment, they can keep communications going well beyond the limitations of fuel reserves for motor-driven generators until the commercial infrastructure is restored."

If the scenario is the government deciding to take control over communications, they can also very likely requisition the airwaves that hams operate on- and hams are required to broadcast in the clear- so while they might not be able to stop you, actually broadcasting anything would be very illegal.
posted by BungaDunga at 1:35 PM on January 20

This overview of Wireless Networks for Disaster Relief is circa 2014, but it includes a variety of ideas, including:
A few products that target disaster relief are already available and are being implemented. Of these, the BRCK, Vodafone Instant Networks (VIN) and Vodafone Instant Network mini are interesting products that are very effective. While the VIN is focused on large scale relief operations, the BRCK focuses on providing network access to individuals. The VIN mini, which is almost the size of a ruck sack enables wireless access in hard to access environments.
Also, according to the FCC:
If there is a power outage during an emergency, your wireline phone, wireless device or VoIP service may not work unless you have a back-up power supply. If you suffer only an electrical power outage, you should still be able to use a traditional wireline (but not cordless) telephone, because electrical and telephone transmissions use different circuits or wires and telephone company facilities have back-up power available. If you keep the battery on your wireless phone or other device fully charged, these devices should also continue working during a power outage.
At the MeFi Wiki Disaster Planning & Recovery page, there is a section of collected AskMes related to radios.
posted by Little Dawn at 1:37 PM on January 20

@nelson - thanks for perspective. Lets assume a sudden big disaster or shock to the system (major west coast earthquake, meteor strike etc) causing our everyday systems to go down/become inaccessible. What would your first line of backup to get/share information be? Shortwave/Ham Radio? Thoughts on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AMPRNet ?
posted by specialk420 at 3:34 PM on January 20

FCC, apparently:
If you suffer only an electrical power outage, you should still be able to use a traditional wireline (but not cordless) telephone, because electrical and telephone transmissions use different circuits or wires and telephone company facilities have back-up power available. If you keep the battery on your wireless phone or other device fully charged, these devices should also continue working during a power outage.
So your "wireless phone" will work, but your "cordless phone" won't work? I think what they were groping around for is "the base station that the handsets talk to won't work without power, but you can use them as nifty walky-talky thingies around the house!"

Also, I don't even know anyone that still has a "wireline phone" if you don't count people that get cable internet cheaper with a "phone." And cable modems certainly are powered off the grid.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:46 AM on January 21

I'd be surprised if that FCC statement still applies to many homes, particularly in cities.

Maybe someone who's done recent physical phone wiring can weigh in, but my understanding is that most copper is now "last mile" only - even in houses that still have the physical wire, it isn't likely hooked to an old-school exchange any more, and most of the backbone of the PSTN is fully digital. There are a lot of redundancies and backups, but I don't think a wired land line is necessarily more reliable than a mobile connection in the event of a power failure (as it would have been twenty years ago).
posted by aspersioncast at 10:09 AM on January 21

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