Will There be Telephone Service After TSHTF?

Phones have been an inseparable part of our lives for almost 100 years.  It is hard to imagine a future without them.
Phones have been an inseparable part of our lives for almost 100 years. It is hard to imagine a future without them.

Have you thought about how you’ll keep in touch with the other members of your retreat community in a Level 2 or 3 situation?

When things go bad, two of the first things to fail will be cell phones and landline phones.  How will you all keep in touch without these modern conveniences?

The good news is you have lots of different ways to achieve ongoing communications capabilities.  That’s also the bad news, too, because a multitude of choices makes for more difficult decisions than a single obvious right choice.  Which are your best strategies to adopt?

In this, part of an ongoing series on communication methods and strategies, we explain why your wired and wireless phones will fail.

Phone Service is Vulnerable

Although we’ve come to take for granted a near 100% uptime with our phone service, the excellent reliability we have enjoyed in the past will in no way guarantee a similar uptime in the future.

The problem with all phone service – whether wired phone lines, sometimes also referred to as landline(s) or POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service), or wireless – is that there is a lot of infrastructure providing connections between you and the person you are calling.  All of this infrastructure is complex and – most significantly – all of it requires electricity to operate.

Depending on the nature of the problem that creates the Level 2 or 3 situation you are now responding to, some of the above-the-ground and even possibly some of the in-the-ground infrastructure supporting both wired and wireless phone service may be damaged.

Bad weather or explosions may cause phone lines to come down, and similar events may also cause cell phone towers to be downed.

As for in-the-ground services, while a bit of wind or even water or fire is probably not a problem, what about an earthquake?  If the ground shifts three or six feet, will the wires and fiber stretch or break?  More likely the latter.

Power Loss – Maybe Sudden, Otherwise Surely Gradual

While telephone exchanges and even individual cell phone towers often have battery and/or generator backup to provide emergency power, sooner or later (and usually sooner) the battery backup will be exhausted, and the generator fuel all used up.

Most of the serious and substantial disasters we are considering will mean there is no easy way of replenishing the fuel tanks once their stored fuel is exhausted.  No power means no service.

In addition to the main ‘central office’ or ‘exchange’ switching points that you might be vaguely aware of, most phone service these days uses fiber optic lines and/or microwave links, adding extra steps in the chain with the need for electrically powered amplifiers and repeaters along the way from you to the other person.  Even a call from your home to your next door neighbor probably gets routed through half a dozen different switches and amplifiers and other electronic intermediary points – a loss of power at any one of those intermediary points will kill the connection.

Ongoing Maintenance Issues

Maybe some level of service can be restored or maintained.  But what happens when a component fails?  Most ‘repair’ work these days is not actually repairing as the term used to mean.  Instead, it is ‘repair by replacement’ – a bit like how the ‘tube jockeys’ of 50+ years ago would repair a radio or television just by unplugging and replacing tubes until the device started working again.  These people didn’t need to understand how the radio or television worked, they just needed to understand how to swap out tubes, one by one, until the problem disappeared.

These days many/most technicians only know how to replace complete circuit boards and assemblies.  If something fails, they can’t now identify the specific failed component on a circuit board and replace that – they replace they entire circuit board, and probably then send the failed board to a central repair facility somewhere else – possibly even in another country – where either a person or a machine may identify the failed component and, depending on what it is, might attempt to replace it.

Indeed, with integrated circuits and surface mounted devices, the earlier notion of a circuit board with 50 or 100 separate electronic components with leads out of each soldered into holes in the circuit board no longer applies.

This makes it easy to repair equipment when replacement sub-assemblies are readily available, but when they cease to be available, the failure of one individual component causes the entire circuit board or assembly to stop working.

In a serious disaster, once whatever inventory of spares is used up, there won’t be any more being made.  So even if power is able to continue to be obtained, the network will slowly degrade with equipment failures.

Half a Loaf is Probably Not Better than None

Here’s another thought to keep in mind.  Let’s put a ‘best case’ overlay on a ‘bad case’ scenario.  In other words, some sort of event occurs that impacts on society’s ability to continue normal phone service.  That’s the bad case we start with.  But let’s be positive – after some scrambling around and redirecting of resources and everything else, engineers have managed to restore service to a third, or maybe even a half of the total phone system and service network.

But what does that actually mean for you as a user of the service?  Does it mean half the time you get a dialtone, and half the time your call can be completed?  Does it mean call quality is diminished, but still reasonably acceptable?  Does it mean half your friends have working phones and the other half don’t?

We suggest it means that nothing will work.  Remember what we said above – to complete any type of phone call, your voice gets electronically routed over multiple stages.  Let’s say your call goes through six segments.  If one of those segments fails, that doesn’t mean that 5/6 of your call still proceeds, does it.  It means your call will completely fail.

This assumes the network is not self-repairing and not able to intelligently re-route; probably some stages will be able to re-route, but others will not, and it just takes one non-reroutable stage to fail for everything to fail.

In other words, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  A single missing link and the entire chain becomes useless.

EMP Issues

All the preceding assumes some type of initial event that causes the Level 2/3 situation other than an EMP attack.  If the initiating event is an EMP, then we don’t have a relatively benign gradual degradation of service, we have close to an immediate and complete, total failure.

And with massive damage to most circuitry, it won’t be possible to jury rig some partial solutions to provide some limited comms capabilities to some parts of the community.  It will all be down and dead for an extended time – definitely months and possibly years.

Implications for Preppers

There are several stages to our response to any disaster.  The first stage involves getting ourselves and other family members to an initial staging area; the second stage involves moving to a safe retreat.  The third stage involves hunkering down at the retreat and surviving the situation as best you can.

Check your plans for how you’ll manage each of these three stages.  Does any part of these three stages assume that you can use regular landlines or wireless/cellular phones?  If it does, you need to come up with an alternative communication strategy to recognize that there’s every good chance that the phone service you need will not be available when and where you need it.

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