The internet is a near-necessary when it comes to modern living, and so is cell service, whether it be for regular calls or your data plan. Being connected to the outside world is a necessity, especially while we are dealing with a pandemic and many of us are working remotely.
Yet outages do occur, and no doubt you’ve experienced a fair few in your life, if only as a side effect from a power outage. And whether it affects your cell service, data plan, or internet service, it can be a major problem. It can ruin your workday, cutting you off from access and your coworkers. It can force you to change your plans for a night in. And depending on the circumstances, it can cause chaos in the world around you. The severity changes based on the length and whether multiple services are out. Yet in any case, it's best to have a plan and a basic understanding of what could be going on.
While we cannot go into detail for every provider and situation, the following notes and tips should help you know what to expect and what to do when there is an outage:
What Can Cause an Outage?
In terms of outages, there are many potential causes. Much of the infrastructure could be vulnerable to extreme stress or weather, and user error is always an option. There are also stranger options that only happen once in a rare while. Here are the main reasons an outage can occur:
Power Outages: The most obvious reason there might be an internet or network outage in your area is that there is a power outage. The internet requires electricity to function, and so do your electronics, router, modem, and more. And all it takes is one piece of the puzzle to not be working during a power outage.
However, there might be the possibility that a power outage is affecting an area outside your home that is vital to providing service. While rare (often such infrastructure would have backup plans and generators), it remains a possibility.
Network Congestion: The infrastructure to support your smartphone and internet connection does have a limit. While you almost certainly won’t run into issues during regular operations, there might be periods of excessive traffic. They are relatively common, especially with some types of service (cable and DSL internet). You may want to look at what you can do to reduce your traffic or check to see if you’re living in a commonly congested region.
With data plans, interestingly people on a plan not from one of the major providers (usually at a heavy discount) will be deprioritized compared to people who are on a premium plan directly from a provider. Data plans and cell service also have peak hours, so watch out for those.
A Deliberate Attack: Cybercrime comes in many forms. While few attacks will bother cell service outside of a physical attack on the infrastructure, internet service can be interrupted. There may be a DDOS attack on your router, or a problem involving your service provider. On rare occasions, someone might try to sabotage lines. If there is a wider problem there is little you can do, but do try to keep abreast of related news.
A Failed Link or Bad Connection: In the case of your internet connection, chances are that something happened to one of the wires in your area. Many wires might be underground, but even those can run into issues. Other conditions could affect the effectiveness of the equipment used to support smartphones. Communications and cable technology are complex the result of decades of innovation, meaning that not everything works perfectly.
Poorly Grounded Equipment: Sometimes electrical issues occur outside of a power outage. If infrastructure or any equipment is not properly grounded, it can get damaged. This is relatively rare, but take note if you notice something off. Ideally, the service provider will fix the issue as soon as possible.
Operation Errors: On your end, it might be something related to installation, or some settings on your phone or other devices. This is rare, however, and does not last long if an issue does come up. Most systems are automated to a heavy degree, and people performing maintenance are professionals who would be careful to not disrupt service unless necessary.
Intermittent Outages: There might be times when your signal or internet connection cuts in and out, making calling impossible and texting and working online confusion. Even the slightest of hiccups can make things such as online gaming or doing video calls annoying if not impossible, and they do deserve attention. Again, these might be caused by a high level of traffic, but they are nonetheless annoying. Note them and address them if they are not fixed.
Other Possibilities: The potential for failure is limitless, and there are certainly other potential causes for an outage than those listed above. However, these would be rare, and it is better to prepare yourself in general and for the common causes. Don’t try to worry about every last possible scenario. We’re certain you have bigger problems to concern yourself with.
Is it on Your End?
One thing that can sometimes be hard to determine at first is whether an internet outage is something that is on the end of the ISP and their responsibility to solve or a problem with your equipment. With internet outages there are plenty of steps you can take to troubleshoot the issue, but here are a few things you should check before considering something is wrong with your service provider:
- Try connecting with other devices. If you’re worried about your internet connection, try another device such as a laptop, your phone, etc. If there is a universal problem in your home, you can rule out device-specific problems.
- It might seem cliched, but try resetting your modem and router (sometimes they are a combo). It takes about a minute and can solve many problems on your end with an outage.
- Are people in your area having issues? Check-in with a neighbor who has the same provider if you know one. If you have access to some form of internet, then you can easily check online if people around you are complaining. Trust us, they will.
- Using your phone’s data plan (if that isn’t part of the outage), check your provider and see if there is a statement about outages in your area. You can easily find widespread issues this way, assuming it has not made the news.
- Are you in an area that could be blocked off from signals? Some places are better than others for wireless service. Try out several places in your home to see if things are working properly.
- It could just be a specific site or series of sites. While you think you might notice this without thinking about it, imagine if Google or Amazon had a major issue. Large portions of the Internet would be down. For those who only use a few sites, it would seem like an outage.
While narrowing down the problem to your end might be frustrating, you can feel confident contacting technical support if you do so. You may also need to replace a few devices, and hopefully, none are too expensive. In either case, you know whether to contact your service provider or not and hopefully what for if so.
Not everything is as fragile as it seems. Given the number of potential issues that could affect internet or network connection, it is wise that most providers include several forms of redundancy in their service. Whether being able to route service through different networks or having backup options for when equipment fails, a single issue will likely not take down a network. Think of it much how water lines or power supplies will often have alternate routes or backup plans ready to go in the event a small area needs to be shut off.
The exact details of such will vary and you might be confused if you are not used to it, but rest knowing that everything is not so delicate that you’ll lose service at the slightest touch. Lives often depend on these services, and so safety and reliability are required for maximum trust and effectiveness. Some service providers and areas will be better than others, however, so do pay attention if the information is available.
How Long Will It Last?
Some service outages might only last a few minutes. Some will last for hours. In the worst cases, they will last for days. There is no exact formula to determine how long an outage of any kind will last. There are simply too many factors at play.
If it is caused by extreme weather, then the outage will likely continue until it is safe for workers to go and fix whatever damaged infrastructure there is. And while they likely have parts and most of the necessary tools to do so, in some cases they might need to take extra time or get extra support to do their work safely, given how equipment and lines are not uniform across the country or even a region. Having to wait any longer than what is necessary will make customers extremely unhappy, so service providers are usually very quick to respond to an outage. It’s the foundation of their business, after all.
However, when there are multiple outages or many problems, professionals and companies will likely try to prioritize restoration of services that will affect the most people or are the easiest to solve. It might vary depending on the situation, but note that your area for whatever reason might not come first. You should be prepared for a worst-case scenario, even if it is ultimately unlikely.
What you may need to worry about more are regular or recurrent outages or service disruptions. The service provider might find them acceptable, but you shouldn’t. Take note of when and how long recurring problems last, and take it up with your service provider. If they do nothing, take further action or seek a new provider.
What to Do When It Happens
First of all, don’t panic. It can be extremely frustrating dealing with an outage of any sort, but this is an issue that is likely not putting you in immediate physical danger. If all of the cell and phone service is down in your area, then it is a sign of a much larger problem and people are likely on the way to fixing it. You may hope you have something else to do, but this will pass like every other time.
Using the information provided above, see if you can track down the cause of the issue and whether you need to do anything on your end to solve it. If the outage is on your end, then you can take action and move on. Otherwise, you might have to wait and check to see if the connection is back periodically. If you know there is an obvious cause (there is a storm in your area), you might just need to wait it out.
After a certain point, you will want to contact your service provider to let them know there is an issue. How long depends on the circumstances. Ideally, you can use your phone to do this, but you may need to find an alternative form of communication. Again, if there is no clear way and service remains constantly interrupted, the problem is severe and it is likely getting fixed as soon as possible.
If you’re separated from people you should or would otherwise be in contact with, then try to think of the best way to find them or contact them via alternative means. Leaving a message or texting them to be sent out later might be the best you can do. You may also want to let them find you. Use your best judgment and your knowledge of the people involved.
Take measurements and notes wherever possible. Note where and when service interruptions take place, and if you are just getting slowdowns how severe they are. You pay your ISP each month for quality service and a regularly working connection. While emergencies and occasional outages due to unforeseen circumstances are unavoidable, regular problems are not acceptable, especially when they interfere with your ability to live your life normally. Outages should be the exception instead of the rule.
Turning Your Phone into a Hotspot
If you still need internet access and your regular internet service is down, there’s a chance you might be able to use your phone as a wireless hotspot. The exact details may vary based on your phone and your data plan provider, but it will be able to hold you over for a while. Just be aware of any limits on hotspot usage, how fast the connection will be, and the battery life of your phone. It may be a resource drain to do this, so an actual emergency may require you to conserve energy. We recommend doing a test run ahead of time, so you know what to do when an outage occurs.
Turning Your Internet Connection into a Phone Connection
There are plenty of apps that allow you to communicate with someone over WiFi as though you were on the phone. They’re commonly used for overseas communications, video calls as well, and more. Chances are you have a few installed on your phone by default. If there is a phone data outage or phone service outage, you might be able to get around the problem by utilizing local WiFi, whether through WiFi calling or another app.
Of course, several different factors would affect how effective this is. If you’re trying to call someone in an area that is having a service outage, you might run into issues. The other person might need to be able to access the app and have a good internet connection on their end. Additionally, depending on the service and your setup, your call may not go through anyway. Nonetheless, it is something you can try instead of waiting around for a fix.
Texting Is Your Safest Bet
What may knock out cell phone service, data service, or internet service might not knock out texting. In many cases, texting is handled by a separate or complementary emergency system. Furthermore, texting causes less congestion, and it is more efficient than calls. In any emergency situation, texting is a better way to check on your loved ones. If you use messenger apps instead of SMS for the most part, at least make sure you have the numbers of the people close to you in case of emergency.
How You Can Prepare
If you want to prepare for a potential outage for either your internet or your cell service, we recommend the following:
- Do have your voicemail set up. While someone calling you might get put directly to voice mail, at the very least they can get a better handle on the situation and leave you a message you can respond to. While in an emergency situation text messaging is recommended, not everyone might remember to do so.
- If you think you might be dealing with an outage in the near future, try to download and save what you need ahead of time. Even things such as streaming services allow you to download content to watch online. If you know things are going to be ok, you can just continue as you’d like and resync your life with the outside world when service comes back.
- If you work online and require a constant connection, be sure to make a habit of saving regularly. Autosave features are for the most part fine for this, and many pages will hold onto information put in until either they are closed or you can get a connection again. Check the programs and apps you use, and change the settings accordingly.
- You should get together an emergency kit. While losing internet and phone network access isn’t usually a life-threatening emergency in and of itself, any extended outage could be caused by something that would necessitate an emergency kit. Stock up on a few supplies (dry food, bottled water, some flashlights, etc.) so you can get by easier.
- Similarly, things that cause internet and network outages also cause power outages. A spare battery or a portable charging station can be a great help in these circumstances, and many of them also have additional uses such as being able to jump-start a car, charge other devices, and more. We highly recommend that you get something of the sort if only enough for your own smartphone to last a day without a proper wall charger. Your car can also help in this instance, so a car charger is recommended as well.
If You’re a Manager or Business Owner
We would like to note that things might be vastly different if you are the manager or owner of a business or other organization. People might not be able to work without a connection. Sometimes the services you provide cannot wait or might be vital. We hope that you have a plan in advance if they are important. Most of the above tips relate to individual users, and while the reasons for an outage might be the same, your reaction should be appropriate to the situation and your position.
What we would recommend, though, is that you heavily consider the scale of your operation. Business internet has some differences from consumer internet.
Remember They Can Happen at Any Time
We certainly don’t have any intention of alarming you, but it is important to know that you can be affected by an internet or network loss at any point. You should have at least a few preparations for a short-term loss. Inclement weather and heavy congestion of a network can increase the odds of an outage. Yet freak accidents can happen, the equipment can fail, and human error always remains a possibility.
There is such a thing as over-preparedness, but you should know what to do next if an outage occurs. Whether that means putting down the computer and picking up a book or taking a more proactive approach is up to you.
It's Going to Be Ok
Remember, the outage isn’t the end of the world, as much as it might feel like it is if you happened to be doing something important. Your messages will likely be waiting for you when you’re done, and there are few calls, if any, that are so important that you cannot get back to them later. And even if you are concerned about an outage, we know you’ll be able to use the information above to the fullest.
If you’re reading this, you probably have access to some form of internet, and we hope that you aren’t inconvenienced for too long. In today’s world the internet is a near-necessity, and similarly having cell service go down can make us feel cut off from the outside world, especially when we have no landline to call our own. Yet with the above information, you might be able to make things easier for yourself and the people around you. We wish you the best of luck, and