October 03, 2013


As Heritage Foundation official James Carafano notes, our communications systems are highly dependent upon electronic infrastructure, from cell towers and fiber-optic cables to the computers and other equipment that route communication. But those systems are surprisingly fragile and rely upon a steady supply of electricity to keep functioning. If the U.S. electrical grid ever fails, chances are that a lot of the communications methods that we use every day are going to fail too, and we’re going to find it difficult to get in touch with one another or find vital information.

Major storms that have disrupted power over wide areas in recent years have exposed some of our communication weaknesses. One of the big problems, as Consumer Reports noted in a January 2012 article, is that old-fashioned copper telephone lines, which often continued working during outages, increasingly have been replaced by fiber optic landlines and VoIP calling, in which phone conversations are transmitted in digital form over the Internet. Those systems require homes to have battery backups to power modems and routers. When the batteries run down—typically within eight hours—the phone is going to go dead, making it impossible to dial 911 for assistance or to locate friends and family members.

As the August 2003 blackout that hit much of the Northeast and Midwest U.S. demonstrated, cell phone networks also can become unreliable during a massive outage. Many of the networks’ radio-receiving and transmitting stations had backup batteries that only gave them a few hours of emergency power, according to a 2003 New York Times article, and when those ran out, they quickly went offline. Even at the remaining stations where power wasn't cut off, the volume of calls became so great that the system couldn't handle it. “The cell system is designed for power outages of minimal duration,” Michael Grossi, a telecommunications consultant, told the Times.

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