5 min read

Network Disruption and Complications

Network Disruption and Complications

Two weeks ago, AT&T suffered a nationwide outage that affected millions of people–myself included. This outage lasted a little less than twelve hours and reports of said outage were experienced from California to Virginia. Reports of other networks going down were knock-on effects of the AT&T blackout–Verizon and T-Mobile customers, in the early morning, were likely just trying to communicate with AT&T customers and thus getting bupkis back. AT&T, for its part, has confessed to the outage being caused by an error in code, and not, as per speculation, a cyber-attack (or solar flare, which coincidentally struck the other side of the planet around the same time (causing no real damage)).

All told, this was a minor problem for most people and it was exceedingly temporary. It is, however, a decent reminder of the fact that we rely all too much on one rather vulnerable slate of infrastructure. So let's talk about the impacts of a disruption to communication systems like the one suffered by AT&T, how they might occur, and how we might soften those impacts.

The Loss of a Cellular Network on the Ground

We could always spitball and say "what if all communication networks were brought down at once," but we don't actually need to think that big in order to see pretty widespread disruption to our lives. Blackouts are their own thing and frequently cause disruptions to cell networks in addition to most other methods of communication, but they also bring a number of other more dire circumstances that make texting your bestie a more distant issue. Let's not diminish this, though–as it is a serious problem.

You may remember that a few years ago, AT&T HQ was rather poorly targeted by a bomber who blew up an RV in downtown Nashville. Despite the relatively low amount of destruction, there was still a wide swath of the South that went without AT&T service after the bombing. Much like then, the greatest risk experienced in this more recent outage was the loss of the ability to call 911. In the recent outage, folks who relied on AT&T for mobile coverage were also hobbled at work, stuck driving without navigation, and left without the ability to contact friends and loved ones–obviously. Most apps these days have some flexibility with wi-fi, but anyone not under that umbrella was left without a means of communication.

The most significant danger here is in emergent situations. Seconds matter when a building catches fire, or a person suffers a heart attack, or crashes their car–and on, and on. Having to find an alternative method of contacting emergency services, whether by borrowing a cell phone or finding a land line, costs seconds or minutes that can mean the difference between life and death. And it's not just individual cell phone usage, either. In Upper Arlington, Ohio, some area fire alarms were hosted by the AT&T network, and the outage affected these alarms. Rather comedically, the city turned to Twitter to message its residents to make them aware of this predicament. But this is a problem! Imagine that you don't check Twitter for your fire alarm updates, like I would guess most folks in Upper Arlington probably don't, and you are unaware that your fire alarm–which can still go off, but not contact the fire department–is just a noisemaker. You might, in this situation, think that you needn't call 911 because your alarm is supposed to do that automatically, focus on getting out of your house and in your panic stand in the driveway and watch your house burn with no emergency services on the way.

Larger Disruptions

It's easy enough to extrapolate what can occur when more than one network goes down–or all of them. While AT&T alone is actually (surprisingly?) the largest mobile provider in the United States, taking out additional networks–and internet providers–would add so many complications to a situation that is, on its face, without immediate danger. Much of the country's economy halts; banks operate off "normal" networks–that is to say, they have regular network infrastructure and vulnerabilities like any other industry. It stands to reason then that credit card companies then would see disruption, as well, which means that you're basically down to paper money if you should need, say, food. How much cash do you have on hand right now? I could just barely get a week's worth of groceries, personally, and that's entirely dipped from my prepped cash. Maybe something worth considering.

The fire alarms in Upper Arlington are an excellent example of the unforeseen ways that our interconnected world creates both conveniences and vulnerabilities. Let me make my point by way of personal anecdote: I worked as director of security for a city Department of Public Health. Our contracted security guards were responsible, after hours, for ensuring that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in vaccines meant to inoculate the city were kept at constant temperatures, and that nothing went wrong with them otherwise. When something went awry, it was our job to begin a phone tree, effectively, to get people to respond to either fix the refrigerators the vaccines were kept in, or to find alternatives–we were not capable of doing anything but stopgap measures. Remove the ability to call for help and suddenly the city is out half a million dollars and, temporarily, the city is without a means of protecting some of its citizens. This anecdotal problem extends from there–should a fire alarm for that building go offline, or for any other city building–that's potentially an enormous loss. A police station, on the other hand...

As mundane as it may seem, (and redundant to bring up again), the loss of communication networks could likewise bring down the power grid. Vulnerable as they are to attack themselves, power stations must communicate with each other in order to properly match output with demand. A lag in that regard, a miscommunication, a deliberate wrench thrown, can cause a blackout. Those, of course, are dangerous enough to have merited their own post.

How to Prepare

The easiest and cheapest way to prepare against a cellular network outage is to confirm your grandma has a landline. Joke aside, ask around your neighborhood to see if someone does. If no one does, consider getting your own installed and become that person for your community. While this doesn't protect against the crashing of our entire communications grid, virtually nothing will, so it's unrealistic to expect one solution for such an enormous problem.

Another cheap (free, really) prep is to have a plan in place for a situation like this. Discuss with your family and friends how you would proceed in the event of a communications blackout. Do you just weather it? Do you return home if you are away? Do you have an established alternative means of communication? The AT&T outage was fairly brief, but how might your needs change if this outage were to last longer? Do you have medical concerns that would necessitate some means of making contact with a doctor, a pharmacy, 911, within the span of an outage? Considering these possibilities and planning through them can be a considerable weight off your shoulders.

There are, of course, alternatives that cost money. You can purchase and distribute radios for your friends if you live close enough to each other. You can establish mesh networks that will not go down with other means of communication. These are, in my opinion, long-term goals and ideal for not just maintaining means of communication through network outages, but safer means of communication in increasingly hostile political climates and in response to the eventual crumbling and collapse of our systems.

While having cell phones is great–incredible, even–relying on them for literally everything creates the potential for massive disruption. We have come to rely on these tools for virtually everything in our lives, so that when this one tool breaks, well, we're hosed. It's important that we have alternatives in place for these situations, as outages are not just possibilities, but inevitabilities. And the longer we stretch these timescales, the more certain and permanent these disruptions become.