As cell phone service has grown reliable and more widely available, many households have given up their landline telephones.
Today, about two-thirds of younger Americans use cell phones only, and about 40 percent of households overall have given up landlines.
This, though, can be a problem during an emergency.
Some, but not all, cell towers have backup generators, but during Hurricane Sandy they provided only an additional four to six hours of power. In Long Island, N.Y., every single cell phone tower eventually failed, leaving an entire community holding worthless cells phones.
“There was one woman in particular who passed away, of natural causes, an elderly woman,” city manager Jack Schnirman told NPR. “And her daughter had to walk literally a mile and a half from her home to police headquarters just to say, ‘Listen, my mom has passed, and I thought I should tell somebody.”
Said college student Colleen Marron, “It was scary because you don’t know what is going on. You feel helpless.”
Additionally, cell towers are not designed to handle a mass of people calling all at once.
Landline phones, assuming they are not wireless, generally work during a power outage. This is because power is sent to the phones through the phone line from the power companies. The power companies have battery backup and backup generators so that their operations can continue for well over a week during a power outage.
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The lines often are underground, preventing them from being damaged during a storm. That’s a selling point for landline companies who are trying to maintain customers.
“When the power’s out, a landline phone connection will work more than 99.9 percent of the time,” says a TDS Telecom website. “It’s required by the FCC. This means you can still reach 911 and friends and family; they can all reach you, too. Even if a major storm (tornado or hurricane) comes through the area. It might take out the cell tower, but it can’t take out the underground phone lines.”
In other words, during a power outage, cell phone towers will exhaust their battery power within a matter of hours, while landlines will work for well over a week, maybe more (depending on the ability of the phone company to keep its generators running).
But if disaster strikes and the grid goes down long-term, both cell phones and landlines eventually won’t work. Therefore, consider some other communication options.
Citizen Band (CB) Radio
CB radios allow two-way communication and are simple to use. They are a good starter device for those interested in alternative forms of communication that don’t use a phone line, cell network or Internet.
In the past, you needed a license to use a CB radio but the FCC stopped requiring them in the 1980s.
There are a couple of drawbacks to CB radios, though. One, they have a fairly limited range (anywhere from 5 to 20 miles). Second, while there are certainly dedicated users, the number is actually quite low. So in a disaster, you may not find another CB radio operator within range (especially if you live as far as possible from major metropolitan centers).
Amateur (Ham) Radio
Ham radios allow two-way communication locally and around the world. The drawback is that training and licensure are required, as well as investment in equipment. Some people who distrust the government are reluctant to get licensed, but this is one of the few areas where the risk of sharing information with the government is outweighed by the benefits.
There are over 600,000 ham radio operators in the U.S. and millions worldwide. Moreover, the radios use little power, so there are many ways to power them when the grid is down. Choices include battery backup, solar power backup and manual power sources. (Listen to Off The Grid Radio’s in-depth report on ham radios.)
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The benefit of satellite phones over cell phones or landlines is that they use satellites to transmit communications. Why is this an advantage? Because unlike cell phone towers or phone companies, satellites are designed to operate without any input, ever, from our electrical grid. They provide their own sustainable power by capturing solar power, thereby making them independent of any power supply issues on earth.
Additionally, you can get satellite phones with batteries that can be charged with solar power. The end result is a rechargeable phone battery that uses satellites with their own independent power sources.
Nevertheless, satellite phones have some disadvantages. First, they are expensive and the monthly access fees also can be very costly, depending on where you live. Second, you have to be outside so that the satellite phone antenna can receive a signal.
Modern society has become increasingly dependent on cell phones for communication. However, these phones are the first to fail when the grid goes down. Landline phones fare better and should operate for several days or weeks before failure.
Alternatives with longer term potential in a serious grid-down situation include CB radios, ham radios and satellite phones. All of these alternatives have advantages and disadvantages, so the best bet is to keep your landline and have at least two alternate communication devices with battery backup and solar recharging capabilities.
What do you believe is the best form of backup communication? Share your advice in the section below: