Plan B: Do You Have One?

It’s been said that if architects designed buildings the  way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization… We’ve just heard from one of those woodpeckers, and they are not just about software.

On February 26 of this year, some apparently determined and organized vandals cut a major fiber-optic line in northern Arizona, depriving tens of thousands of residents of phone and internet service for most of a day.

This might seem to some like not a big deal, and if one’s internet usage consists mostly of Facebook and watching stupid cat videos, it’s not. But try to use an ATM or pay for something with a credit card, and you soon find out differently. Local news stations could not even get weather reports from around the state. Law enforcement databases were unavailable. Cellphones didn’t work. Stores closed because they couldn’t ring up sales. If you had an emergency, you might not have had a way to call for help.

This is not the only time something like this has happened. in 1998, the Galaxy IV communications satellite stopped aiming it’s antenna at Earth, leaving millions of Americans without phone and pager service for several days.

It seems amazing that the explosion of the internet is only about 25 years old (or less, depending on how you look at it), and we are already so dependent on it that any disruption at all throws life into chaos. Our current system is incredibly vulnerable to anything from vandals to solar flares.  It’s time to think about a Plan B.

I don’t know much about big business, but one thing I learned was that if a business gets more than half it’s revenue from a single customer, that business is looking at a huge potential problem if that customer stops buying. Single-sourcing anything is a terrible idea, whether you’re a business or an individual.

A Plan B involves having available a different way of doing things should the primary way collapse for some reason. For the business, this may involve having a way to at least make cash sales if you can’t take plastic. Maybe even processing credit cards the old fashioned way, with the mechanical imprinter. Sure, it’s riskier. But your customers will love you!

For the individual, I can think of a few very practical and simple ways to be prepared for a potential lack of modern conveniences like internet.

  • Always have some cash on hand; enough to buy a tank of gas and a few meals would be the minimum. If you don’t want to carry it in your wallet, at least have it in a hidden envelope somewhere at home. I recommend at least $100, some in $5 and $10 bills. The bank isn’t going to pay you any interest worth mentioning anyway, so you might as well keep it at home instead.
  • Do not store your vital files only in the “cloud.” As a matter of fact, any file you care enough about to keep should be on your computer’s hard drive. It’s okay to back up your files to the cloud, like DropBox does, but have a local copy that is within your control.
  • Don’t let your gas tank run almost dry. Always have enough gas to at least get home again, or to some safe place if you’re on a trip.
  • Consider having your phone (land-line), internet, and TV service from different providers. Yes, I know it’s convenient to bundle your services, but if all three of those are coming into your home over one skinny cable, and some fool cuts that cable with a backhoe, you are completely out of touch with the world. If it’s a local outage, your cellphone will still work, but in the latest Arizona outage, cellphones were also affected. Plain old copper wire may seem so last Century, but it still worked after the fiber-optic was cut.
  • Look into getting an Amateur radio license. You do not have to be a brain surgeon to get one of these. There is a written test to pass (which usually costs about $5- $10), the license itself is free and good for 10 years, and you can be up and running with a cheap walkie-talkie  radio for under $50. You may not think a walkie-talkie would do much good, with it’s limited range, but amateurs have mountain-top repeaters in all cities and most towns, so city-wide coverage is not unusual. Amateur radio has proven to be a very important service when the you-know-what hits the fan; it’s totally independent of anything else.
  • Above all, think independently, not dependently! You can take control of a lot of this stuff. Don’t trust it to someone else.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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