Ted on Tech: When the power goes out

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With the United States under siege by hurricanes this season, individuals, businesses and accounting firms in affected regions are finding their disaster plans tested to their limits. While firms can back up data, operate in a cloud hosted environment, invest in generators and take other such measures, there are always gaps during disasters of scale that make it difficult to continue operations seamlessly. What’s the solution?

I have to admit (and tempt the fates) that I’ve been pretty lucky over the years as far as power failures go. Through blizzards, superstorms and hurricanes, I’ve suffered the occasional blackout and power outage. But for the most part, they haven’t lasted more than a day or so. At the time I was originally writing this, I was thinking about coming up with a more formal plan for those times when the power goes away.

When the power goes out, it’s a real pain. I have several UPS systems on my network, but to be honest, they aren’t really helpful except to let me power down the PCs that are connected to them. But about a week after I originally submitted this blog entry, Texas was hit by Hurricane Harvey. Then Hurricane Irma decimated the Caribbean and large areas of Florida. Given the magnitude of the disasters, it was time to rethink my initial blog entry.

My main concern is that just about all of my work is done on computer, and a good deal of that necessitates using the Internet and especially email. So when the power goes down, I can work on a laptop, at least to some degree. But my entire network goes down since very few of the switches, access points, or my cable modem are on a UPS. And without the network, my Internet access also disappears. Even more problematic is that my Internet gateway/router is a server mounted on a server rack in the basement. There’s an APCC UPS proving backup power, but it’s not going to keep the gateway server running for very long even if I have a UPS on the cable modem. Creating a low power-draw network with a second router in parallel with the current one is a possibility, but kind of defeats the whole purpose of having the gateway on a server.

So I need to think about a new strategy. APCC sent me an new 50 watt BackUPS-Connect model that has a built-in removable battery pack which can be used to charge a cell phone or tablet. It’s going between my Griffin Technology Power Dock and the wall outlet. The Power Dock is a neat little storage device that holds five tablets vertically and lets you plug in all of the power cords from the tablets into the base. A single power supply then plugs into the wall outlet and keeps everything charged. I’ve had this for several years, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it works great for organizing and powering my tablet collection.

It should work even better with a UPS to keep the charging current going during a power failure. One of my tablets is an iPad Air with a keyboard case that has a much longer battery run time (when fully charged) than my laptop. Another is a Microsoft Surface 3, again with a keyboard. So between the two of them I actually have several days of usable computing time.

I can keep working for a day or two during a power outage using a laptop and/or tablet plugged into a hefty UPS to keep the laptop battery topped off. And that might be an affordable power plan for some of you with fairly simple computing needs.

But Internet access is the part where I get stuck. In the past, I’ve occasionally turned my iPhone into a hotspot that connects to my cellular service and provides Wi-Fi access to my laptop or tablet. If I plug my phone’s charger cable into the removable charger pack on the new APCC UPS, it should give me more than enough hours of connectivity. That’s a solution, but not an optimum one. Tethering to my phone provides internet service but it’s fairly slow, even at 4G cellular data speeds, and the data charges add up quickly on my plan. But it does provide Internet connectivity in many instances if I really need it. And the data charges are just something I have to eat if I need the Internet to finish an assignment or engagement, or need to use my email accounts. A stand-alone wireless hotspot is another option, but I don’t know if these work any better than just tethering my laptop or tablet to my iPhone. It doesn’t seem that they would, as both are 4G devices.

But given what happened in Texas and Florida, that’s not a guaranteed way to provide access to the Internet and your critical business emails. In a real disaster, the cellular infrastructure goes away along with the power. Your clients will probably understand if you have a disaster plan in place and need some time to recover. Contacting them, though, is a concern, especially if you don’t have access to your email.

There is a viable alternative, but it’s expensive and not 100 percent reliable — and that’s satellite phone and data. The Iridium network provides both voice and data accessibility, and is billed on a per minute basis. It’s not cheap, but there’s a large network of satellites orbiting the planet, so there’s usually one in range of your device. As a backup for critical communications, it’s worth looking at. The downside, aside from cost, is that in a real disaster there’s a fair chance that the available bandwidth will be swamped and you might not be able to get through or check email immediately. Still, it’s better than nothing.

Continuing to operate during a power outage that lasts beyond a few minutes or so is a real problem without a simple and affordable solution that I can see, especially if the infrastructure is damaged. With much of our livelihood so closely tied to the use of advanced technology, we’re in a real bind when the power goes out. We all need some sort of backup plan to deal with this kind of problem. I’ve yet to come up with a good affordable one for my set of needs and circumstances that I feel positive about.

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