Protect Yourself Against Power Outages with Multiple Cellular Phones

A Potential Cellular Phone Power-Cut Scenario

Say you don't have a landline telephone, but you use a cell phone for all of your calling. This could leave you in a scary situation if you need to make a 9-1-1 call and your cell phone provider doesn't happen to backup power, or its backup power has run out.

Be sure to read my general "Do Cellular/Mobile Phones Work During Power Outages?" background article. This is also an interesting article that talks about how the FCC in the USA is demanding backup power for cell sites, but only 8 hours worth, and I can guarantee that rollout will be slow and that it may not be 100% reliable. Plus we all know how batteries wear out over time, especially in the hostile environments that cell towers operate in.

Quick Backgrounder on Cell Tower Backup Power

Here's the way it works: Your cell phone connects to an antenna on a "tower", which likely has a battey backup. Some towers may have a backup diesel/gas generator that can recharge the batteries, but others may not. These towers also need to connect to other towers and finally some kind of regional "downlink" facility, so there's more than one point of failure for these battery backups and generators. You may be lucky enough to be served by more than one tower, and this can reduce the number of potential points of failure, though the remaining towers can become overloaded (which is especialy bad if they have only limited battery backups, they'll get depleted faster).

Your Mobile Phone Solution: Redundancy

Well, the reality is that there are multiple cell phone providers in Canada, the USA and other countries that have completely overlapping infrastructures. GSM providers are incompatible with CDMA providers, so they have 100% separate networks. Even though they may share some towers, they often still have their own independent power systems. 

Now, you're probably thinking that I'm going to tell you to subscribe to both types of cell phone providers, but I'm not.

9-1-1 Cellular Phone Calls are FREE

Buy a cell phone for that other provider, but DON'T buy a plan of any kind, not even a "pay as you go" plan. Every cell phone can be used to call 9-1-1, whether it has a subscription or not, remaining minutes or not. Even if it is $1000s in debt, it can still be used to call 9-1-1. Activation nor registration of the phone is required. They should even connect to any available network (in case there are multiple providers using the same infrastructure).

Just be sure that if you have a GSM phone, make sure you get a CDMA one, if CDMA, make sure you get GSM. Now you've just substantially reduced your chance of being unable to call 9-1-1 from a cellular phone in an emergency, but not eliminated, that's for sure.

This isn't even a bad idea if you have a landline telephone, but want a backup to that in the event that a pole gets snapped and both your electricity and telephone line go out at the same time.

A note about cellular phone batteries

You can buy a used one, that's no problem, regardless of how old it is, as long as it isn't an analog phone. These can be had for just a few dollars from thrift stores or Ebay. The other consideration is batteries: Batteries wear out over time, so even keeping it continuously plugged in might not be a strategy if you want something for power outages, so purchase a car 12V adapter to use it in your car, or get one of those alkaline-based emergency chargers, and just keep the batteries in the freezer. Dealextreme is a Hong Kong based retailer that sells cell phone accessories, like 12V car adapters, cheaply.

Alkaline batteries self-discharge over a period of years, while the rechargeable batteries used in cell phones self-discharge over a period of days. So, alkalines can be your backup power supply for this cheap cell phone.

Finally, you can also consider the ultimate backup: A satellite phone, such as Iridium, which would be completely independent of the local power system.

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