You were working. Things were just fine. A landscaper puts a shovel through your buried internet cabling or tree limbs drop and kill a neighborhood’s internet. Or the inexplicable happens, and the little green light on the cable modem goes red. You are, as the sailors say when a ship’s engine becomes quiet, dead in the water. What now?
Most remote work depends on access to a reliable internet connection, and for lots of people, especially for hourly or clocked workers, no internet means no pay. That means finding a way to get back online quickly, either at home or elsewhere. The goal, given the interruption, is to stay in business, be employed, and have a reliable backup plan after the internet outage swear words are spoken. It’s for this reason that a bug-out bag of all the cables, gear, and even a sweater (for unregulated air conditioning) can put you back in business quickly.
Staying connected at home
The easiest way to navigate a temporary outage is to tether from your smartphone. All modern smartphones have a Wi-Fi hotspot feature that lets you share their data connection with other devices, though many phone plans limit its usefulness.
You can turn on your hotspot in your phone’s Settings menu. On an iPhone, look for Personal Hotspot in the main Settings menu. On Samsung phones, go to Settings > Connections > Mobile Hotspot and Tethering, and on other Android phones, it’s often in Settings > Network & internet > Hotspot & tethering. Change or copy the password, then connect your laptop to the phone’s Wi-Fi SSID, and you should be in business.
Even “unlimited” phone plans will throttle your hotspot speed after a certain point. That point is usually separate from your overall high-speed data allowance and can range from around 5GB a month to over 40GB. After that, you’ll be limited to 3G speeds or lower. Transferring large files can burn through your hotspot allowance, but the real killer is video calls: a one-hour Zoom meeting can use over a gigabyte of data. If you take a lot of calls, plan to dial in using a phone until your internet comes back. All major video calling platforms support dial-in numbers, though you may have to ask the meeting host or your company’s IT department to enable them.
Moreover, while you might have a blazing-fast 5G connection in normal circumstances, both 5G and 4G / LTE connections can slow down dramatically depending on how many people are sharing the same tower and infrastructure. So, if the outage is widespread, your phone data connection will probably also crawl as everyone hops on their phones. Tethering also burns battery quickly, so if the power is out, you’ll need some way to top up your phone and laptop.
Tethering from your phone is a great option if outages are rare. But if you rely on the internet for work and your main connection is unreliable, it’s worth considering a dedicated backup, whether portable or not.
If you tether regularly — either to weather frequent home outages or to avoid being at the mercy of other people’s Wi-Fi — you could consider a portable hotspot device, which can save your phone’s battery and data allowance alike. The most cost-effective way is to add a hotspot line to your current plan. Verizon customers, for example, can get a 15GB hotspot line for $20 / month if they add it to an existing account; the cheapest standalone plan Verizon offers is $60 / month. That’s great for the cafe crowd, but if your hotspot’s on the same network as your main phone, it’s going to have the same problems with network congestion during a local outage.
In some places, hotspots are a good main option. As phone companies slowly build out their 5G networks, dedicated hotspots can become viable competitors to DSL, cable, and even oversubscribed fiber-optic connections. Where 5G is available and actually working, it rivals many residential / apartment broadband speeds. In rural areas without cable or fiber, 4G or 5G fixed internet might even be your best option, especially if the only other option is DSL. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all offer fixed wireless internet plans, plus Wi-Fi routers with 4G or 5G radios built-in. If you live in a rural area and haven’t checked your options lately, you might be able to switch to wireless (and keep your DSL for backup, if you really want).
If you’re outside the range of cable, fiber, and decent wireless internet, that leaves satellite. Traditional satellite internet is slow and expensive but can be a crucial backup for rural remote workers whose only other option is slow, flaky DSL. Newer satellite options, like Starlink, are still expensive but faster, though coverage isn’t available everywhere yet.
Staying connected away from home
A home outage might not be the only reason to get away. Construction noise, visitors, a neighbor with a full drum kit over for a jam session at the apartment next door, plumbing issues, or the stark need to get away from distractions — all of these are viable reasons to leave if you can find a place with a decent internet connection and an atmosphere conducive to work.
It’s a good idea to do a “trial outage” to find a good spot before you need one. Pack a “bug-out” bag of cables, batteries, chargers, and a sweater (for overenthusiastic AC) and check out the local options. Libraries, coffee shops, and restaurants are all candidates, but not all will be good places to work for a few hours or be willing to accommodate you.
If there’s a Starbucks nearby, that’s usually a safe bet. One of Starbucks’ undeniable early advantages in the connected world was almost guaranteed Wi-Fi. Even today, it’s uncommon to see a Starbucks without at least a few people, laptops open and coffee in hand, using it as a virtual office.
Any given coffee shop, board game cafe, or even bakery may or may not want you to camp out there. Or they might be happy to have your business, especially during off-peak hours. Maybe that great Thai restaurant doesn’t see many customers until late afternoon and doesn’t mind a few regular remote workers buying a steady stream of iced coffee and using the Wi-Fi. It’s best to ask.
Even if they’re welcoming, they might not have publicly available Wi-Fi with decent speeds, and you might have stiff competition for bandwidth as other people log on and off while you try to work. If they do have Wi-Fi, it could be metered, or it could block access to work-critical websites and services. More about that below.
Make sure you can deal with the ambient noise and potential distractions of your temporary workspace. You may need to bring noise-canceling headphones or simple earplugs to avoid being disrupted by carefree children or street noise. And politeness dictates that you avoid contributing too much to the noise. Taking calls, especially video calls, in a public place can be rude, both to your co-workers on the call and to the people around you. (Listening in with your mic muted generally isn’t a problem as long as you’re using headphones.)
If you need a more controlled environment — say you’re on calls all day or just don’t want to deal with coffee shop Wi-Fi — co-working spaces offer short-term desk space, meeting rooms, and even private offices for various prices depending on your needs. Searching for “co-working space” plus your location is your best bet. Co-working space directories exist, but many are incomplete or out of date, and the pandemic has freed up a lot of retail office space, so there may be options available that weren’t there before.
If a cafe is too noisy, a co-working space is too expensive, and you just need a few hours of quiet and good unrestricted Wi-Fi, consider the public library. Most libraries offer high-speed internet connections to the community for the price of a (free) library card. Just be considerate of the other guests, follow library policies, and be alert to their schedules; there may be after-school activities or other events that can lead to distractions. Depending on the library, it may also be easier to social distance than at a cafe or restaurant — and masks are more prone to stay on.
Check the Wi-Fi before you need it
Virtually all businesses that offer free or guest Wi-Fi use captive portals to protect, meter, and / or monetize access to the internet. Any time you’ve connected to a Wi-Fi network and had to log in with your room number / email address or even just agree to an acceptable use policy in order to access the rest of the internet, that’s a captive portal. The captive portal keeps guest devices isolated from the business’s own networks and usually from the other devices on the network. It frequently also blocks access to peer-to-peer services, VPNs, streaming media, social media, certain websites or types of content, or any combination of the above.
Even though most internet traffic is encrypted by default these days, network administrators (or, theoretically, snoops) can still see which websites you visit, if not what you’re doing on them. Using a VPN can keep your traffic private on guest Wi-Fi, and many organizations require an always-on VPN connection to access email — or any company network resources at all.
If your organization requires a VPN, make sure it works on the Wi-Fi you’re using. If it doesn’t, see if IT can help you find another way to get connected. Even if a VPN isn’t required, it’s a pretty good idea to use a paid one to increase your privacy any time you’re on someone else’s Wi-Fi. On a work device, use what your employer requires or offers. On a personal device, use a good paid VPN. If you already pay for cloud storage, paid tiers of iCloud and 2TB-and-up tiers of Google One come with basic VPNs that will do in a pinch. Depending on your router and the computers you have at home, you could set up a VPN back to your home network, too.
Of course, tethering — from your phone or a dedicated hotspot — bypasses the Wi-Fi issue entirely as long as you have decent cell signal.
Whatever your outage plan, test, test, test. There are many ways to get back online when the internet goes out, either at home or elsewhere. Whether the solution is a hotspot / tether or a trip to the local library, make sure it works before you need it to. If you’re leaving the house, take a snack with you and maybe some analgesic. And, in some locales, earplugs are your friend.