I was thinking about taking a bit of a detour from the content I usually make and make a little on a couple different things. With everything going on in the world I’m worried about what could happen here in the future. In a sense I almost feel bad saying that, given with everything going on in some parts of the world people who never expected anything like it are long past that worries about potentials stage and into the dealing with crap stage of things going bad. Anyway though, I was planning on working on some content that would cover things useful to know if things do get a bit dicey. I’ll probably cover a few topics, and I will have varying levels of competency in each different topic; but it will all be in the style of providing the information I know and then hopefully getting you a quick overview that could allow you to further research topics of your choosing and go from there if you wanted. I’ll also try to keep things pretty universal, so that hopefully wherever you are living the information I’ll be laying out will be somewhat applicable.
With all that said, the first thing I’ll talk about, and something I’m somewhat experienced in, is networking/electronic communication and technology in general. Today I hope to provide you some basic information that will allow you to communicate with friends and family even if things get disrupted, and to be able to use electronics as a tool in nearly any situation. In a bit I’ll break down a number of different concepts in a slightly disorganized bullet point fashion.
As always, power outages, natural and human made disasters, small scale cyber attacks, and simple configuration issues (such as Canada’s somewhat recent nationwide internet issues) can all interrupt your ability to electronically communicate. Beyond that, with the last few years as they are, massive cyber attacks, invasions, and even the occasional nation imploding could all lead to a much more catastrophic failure. I’ll start out mostly with communication now and then touch on some other stuff later.
Backup Methods of Communicating
First thing I would like to mention is simply that if one thing goes down try everything else. Even unrelated to all the historical events we’re living through, a while back Microsoft Teams went down for a few hours and that seriously disrupted me while at work. If you usually text or use messengers like WhatsApp and those are down, then your first step should be to check other options. Try emailing, or using different messengers, different social media sites, or hell, even chatting on a Minecraft server if that’s the only thing up.
Tangent, Cash Doesn't Hurt
Further, on a quick tangent, if communication goes down than monetary services might as well. Applying the same concept of multiple options, if you have money in a bank and are worried things might go down or get disrupted, a few hundred in an online service like Paypal and a few hundred in cash could be huge.
Next, I kinda wanted to spotlight the Briar app. I mentioned it in my much more theoretical piece I did on building a new internet in an apocalypse, but it does have some uses here. In most services your device will contact a centralized server or group of servers that handle all messages, but with Briar it goes strait from your device to the other persons device. Since there is no centralized server it gets very hard to block or attack it, making it one of the last things to go down if there was any sort of issue that would prevent other forms of communication. Beyond this, it can also work through Bluetooth or LANs providing mesh networking of sorts among people in the same group, which allows a message to effectively go through a chain of people to get from one person even if the person sending a message doesn’t actually get near the person receiving it as long as it’s for a chat they’re all a part of. While it’s not bulletproof as it requires either working internet -or- a chain of in person contact, it’s still worth mentioning as it’s about as reliable as it can get.
Apps vs Websites
Speaking of messaging apps though, generally speaking apps will fair a lot better than web interfaces when it comes to unreliable connections. Be it a messenger app, email, or something completely different you can probably find an app to be way more resilient to disrupted services. Let’s use email as an example, if you use an app you load your email (which probably has already a copy of your recent emails stored on your device), you type up an email locally on your device, and hit send. Even if you lose connection (or never had it to begin with) the app will keep trying until you get a connection, and once you do it only needs to transmit the copy of the email and you are good.
Compare that to a web interface, where you have to load the web page, load the page to compose the email, and then hit send -- and if you lose a connection at any point you probably have to start all over when the connection comes back. Even though I used email as an example, if you have any service that follows a similar structure using an app instead of a website will probably be a lot more resilient in the event services are congested or disrupted but not entirely offline.
Following a similar concept, but moving onto cellular service, texts are way more likely to function than calls or cellular data is if the network is congested, disrupted, or attacked in any way. Texts are very small compared to calls or most things you would use data for, and don’t require real time transmission. You can send a text and your phone could be trying for an hour before it goes through, but once it goes through it’ll work, where a dropped call will just fail entirely.
Continuing on with info on cell phones, often times phones will work even when the power is out. Many cell towers have backup sources of power, and a cell tower is likely way higher priority than residential or non essential businesses if power rationing has to occur, so you may still be able to communicate with cell phones even the power is dead and your home internet is out.
And my last little tidbit on cell phones right now is that, at least here in the United States (and I would assume most other jurisdictions’ emergency numbers) 911 works regardless of your plan. That means that if the cell network you bought a plan from is down and your phone is showing no bars (or even if you have a phone with no plan whatsoever) may still be able to call emergency services.
Taking a quick step away from your standard digital communication, however, I’d like to talk about radios for a moment. First off, crank radios and battery powered radios allow you to tune into radio broadcasts even if the power is out. A lot of cell phones are also capable of receiving FM radio broadcasts as well.
Beyond traditional AM/FM radios though there are a number of different two way radios in a plethora of bands that allow you to communicate with others over the distance of a few miles or so. Some can even key into repeaters, which allow you to communicate over very long distances. Here in the United States you generally come across FRS radios (ones you find in a supermarket which do not require a license), GMRS radios which requires an easy to get license, and HAM radios which require a test (though no radio requires a license to operate in an emergency here in the United States). Laws vary from place to place, but the great thing about radios from FM broadcasts to two way handheld radios is they operate without any internet or other infrastructure.
Moving on from radios, another tool that might be handy would be a watch. The best watch in an emergency situation would probably be something like a Casio watch, with the date/time, a timer & stopwatch, an alarm clock, and a ten year battery life. Obviously keeping track of time is useful for day to day sort of stuff and for coordinating with others, and it’s also useful for completely random stuff like setting your phone’s clock to the right time after it ran out of battery and you don’t have cell service but need two factor authentication (something I’ve had to do while working in a concrete building, no dicey situation required).
Last on electronic communication, satellite internet allows communication completely independent of infrastructure on the ground, though it’s a bit expensive and requires some serious power to run for a while in the event the power was out or unreliable.
That said, as of recently it looks like the latest IPhone might have a certain degree of satellite connectivity for emergencies. I guess keep an eye out for that sort of feature in the future if you use an Apple device and/or of other manufacturers adopt it.
Speaking of requiring power, there are a number of ways to get it. While there are generators or solar panels paired with large battery banks (often called solar generators), those are pretty obvious and also a bit expensive (not to mention most cheap home generators are not safe to use with electronics). There are also a number of different options, however, to keep your electronics charged without spending hundreds of dollars.
First off, if power is spotty but still there you can take those opportunities to charge up electronics and USB battery banks. You can also charge a phone from a laptop (though you lose overall total power while running the laptop, a phone will still likely run way longer then the laptop will even with the inefficient power loss of running the laptop while charging the phone).
Beyond that, you can also charge a USB device while driving a car, or even if your car is off (though if you’re using power while the alternator of your car is not running you risk a dead battery). Last, unlike a solar generator which could cost hundreds of dollars, there are a number of USB battery banks with decent solar panels ranging from under $30 to about $50 which could get you through a decent amount of phone use. I purchased one for like $25, though this was pre-covid and before some of the inflation and other events.
Apps & Tools
Changing topics from power, however, there are a number of different apps that might also come in handy if your access to the internet became unreliable. First off, offline navigation apps like OSMAnd allow you to navigate without any internet access since GPS data does not need cell reception or internet at all. OSMAnd is a favorite of mine, but any navigation app that allows you to download maps offline will work in a pinch and be hugely useful if you need to get around without internet. Of course physical maps exist too, but GPS is still way superior if you can have it.
Speaking of favorite apps, another one of mine that might be useful is Equate. It can convert anything from units of measure to currencies, so it or a similar app that allows you to perform offline calculations and conversions more complex than a default calculator can could be helpful. Speaking of random tools, the app “Trail Sense” has broad range of tools, but more geared to outdoor stuff ranging from keeping track of where you’ve walked to acting as a metal detector.
On a similar concept, the ability to store information you collect or already have could be very useful as well. Taking photos to document things or archive paper documents, taking notes in a note taking app, or pre-loading a device with digitized versions of ID or important documents & papers could be very useful if things get a bit dicey. However, if you’re storing important documents on your device, tools like AES crypt (or any other encryption software) might also come in handy to keep important data secure.
Last, reference material can also be very handy if you don’t have access to the internet. Copies of Wikipedia or Wiki-med stored in the Kiwix app, ebooks on various subjects, or even the app named “Survival Manual” could all come in handy if you find yourself needing to improvise on anything from staying warm to providing first aid and need more info on it. These apps only scratch the surface, but they are all worth checking out.
Well, that’s about everything I can think of for the moment. Like I warned you in the beginning, it’s a bit disorganized, but luckily my goal was more so to provide info I think might be useful to have just in case rather than tell a gripping story. Again, I hope nobody needs this info, but there’s always things going badly in different places around the globe – and it looks like we’ll see more of it in the coming years. If believe any of this might be useful then I would implore you to look more into it, and you’re always welcome to reach out to me if you wanted to ask questions about anything like that (Mastadon [@][email protected] or twitter [@]nathanbowie6). Stay safe everyone.