When the power goes out — whether it’s severe weather, a transformer malfunction or even a wayward squirrel — your internet-connected devices can be out of business for the outage duration.
Power companies always strive to keep their customers’ electricity on using technology to automatically switch paths to re-route the power if a problem crops up. Still, some outages can result in homes and businesses being in the dark for hours.
How much trouble it causes you depends on how much of your life is tied to the internet and online services.
At home, a disruption in the power supply used to mean lighting of candles (no longer recommended in any case, due to the risk of fire), turning on flashlights, opening or closing windows and waiting it out. In our interconnected world, however, we demand more than light.
Let’s look at the affected technology:
Internet delivered via cable or fiber should, in most cases, be available, because even if your internet service provider (ISP) suffers a power outage, they have backup generators. Other technology along the line is usually — but not always — backed-up by batteries. If not, you won’t have a connection. Internet service delivered by DSL will usually still work. Satellite internet will not be affected, nor will dial-up connections.
Assuming your home is still connected to the internet, the next link is your modem, which needs power, followed by the Wi-Fi router, which also requires juice.
Now we come to the stuff people usually think about: the computer, printer, speakers, gaming console and so on. Laptops with charged batteries will work, as will tablets and smartphones, so long as the cell towers to which they connect have power.
Sometimes overlooked: the TV or monitor needs juice too, and it can be a real power hog.
Clearly, when the electric company fails, your online activities can be heavily impacted, too.
How to get internet during a blackout
The viable solutions depend on the length of the service disruption.
Fixes for a long-term power outage
Extended blackouts may mean you’ll need a generator, which, if you have enough fuel, could, theoretically, keep you going indefinitely. A major consideration here is the output of the generator which may also have to supply other household appliances, such as a refrigerator or hot water heater.
Use a mobile broadband device. This works like tethering, but instead of using your phone, a dedicated device gives you a connection via a mobile signal. You can buy a prepaid plan with Verizon, for example, for its 4G LTE Jetpack. Other wireless services, like AT&T, also offer them. The device itself will run you about $100 to buy outright or can be billed monthly.
Fixes for a short-term power outage
A smart solution for anyone on their computer for work or school would be to invest in an uninterruptible power supply, commonly called a UPS. Basically, it is a battery backup that can give your device power for up to 15 minutes or so and can cost anywhere from $50 to $250. Businesses may invest in heavier-use UPS units that can power computers for much longer.
For your home use, a UPS can keep you from losing your work or forcing a hard shutdown due to a sudden power outage. If the power is out longer than the battery life of the UPS, you have time to properly save your work and shut down your device. UPS units also protect your equipment from power surges, often absorbing any voltage irregularities without you even realizing it. You do need to have your computer or laptop plugged into the UPS unit and maintain its battery. There is a warning light to tell you when the battery needs replacing.
Another option to get power to your devices is to use a hotspot, which tethers your computer to your phone. You need a cell phone plan that comes with hotspot coverage to use it to power your computer or laptop during a short power outage. This option can be used long-term, but it will drain your phone’s battery with constant use and you’re using data, not Wi-Fi, so if your plan isn’t unlimited, you could face an enormous bill. You can always leave your home and go to a cafe or library that offers public Wi-Fi in order to stay online.
How to prepare for a power outage
When the lights go out, it’s not the time to consider your options. Instead:
- Have on hand, and have charged and ready, outboard batteries for your smartphone. These are relatively inexpensive, so you can have two or three, and they will restore your phone to a 100% charge via a USB cable in a fairly short time. Amazon is a good source for many varieties of these.
- Have your laptop charged, and if you absolutely must have it working, invest in — and keep charged — extra batteries for it as well.
- Consider purchasing a UPS if your work is critical; it can also help in cases of brownouts which may cause a loss of data.
- Give some thought to buying a mobile broadband device if you’re concerned that you may need to use tethered laptops during a power outage.
- A home generator can be a smart investment if you live in areas with high winds and frequent power outages. Depending on the size and power, they can run from $500 to over $6,500. You can keep your electronic devices running, as well as power important appliances like your refrigerator.
What if the cable company fails?
If the cause of the internet outage is not a lack of power but damage to the cable companies’ fiber lines, you’ll have to rely on tethering. In February 2020, Spectrum customers in the Northeast lost their service due to an ice storm that caused line damage. While the company offered credits to those affected, they were out of luck if they planned on relying on a generator to keep them online.
A final note about tethering: it only works if the cell towers you access have power. That’s normally not a problem, but if the outage is caused by severe weather (for example, a hurricane or blizzard), the towers’ generators could run out of fuel. Until they are replenished, those towers will be out of business — and so will you.
Power outage FAQs
Yes, when the power is off, your Wi-Fi service will go out. That’s because it relies on hard-wired equipment like routers and gateways.
Some battery backups can power your router for up to three hours.
You can only keep your modem and router running in a power outage if they are connected to a battery back up or if you have a home generator.
Written by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
Robin Layton is an editor for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. She built her internet industry expertise writing and editing for four years on the site, as well as on Allconnect’s sister site MYMOVE.com. … Read more
Edited by:Camryn Smith
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