back to article Wireless comms and the end of civilisation

Characters in the recent BBC remake of Survivors seem curiously ill-informed about how the UK's communications infrastructure would deal with the collapse of civilisation, so in an attempt to ensure Reg readers are better-equipped we present a wireless guide to the apocalypse. For those who too young to remember the original, …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Uh is it me or is El Reg being pedantic about a work of fiction?

    Next thing you'll be telling us that the Transformers documentry that was released last year wasn't real.......

    Paris as at least she can understand artistic licence......

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Flame

    You can get a life in Aisle 12

    It's a telly drama ffs...get a life!

  3. Ged Perryman
    Jobs Horns

    Is anybody out there...

    I'm not sure where the 90% fatality rate figure came from, but I think the TV series is significantly higher than that - 90% would suggest out of a hundred people in your street, 10 would survive (approx) but in fact we saw people walking around street after street without seeing anybody. I would suggest the figure to be 99%+.

    The other thing about wireless communication is it tends to be a two way thing... so who you gonna call?

    (Because I have to work with them!!)

  4. Marc Savage

    previous poster...

    The thing is that the story is stupid. Its like them forgetting antibiotics.

    silly program.

  5. Conrad Longmore
    Dead Vulture

    Talk to whom exactly?

    Who exactly are they going to phone up using a fixed landline? Everyone's dead! Well, almost everyone..

    Of course, if they'd have been reading El Reg they would have opted for this: http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2008/11/28/review_two_way_radio_motorola_tlkr_t7/

    btw, am I the only person who thinks that this is like a zombie movie.. but without the zombies?

  6. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge
    Stop

    Hmmm....

    Nice overview of the real world status, but really... don't forget that Survivors is just a TV show and designed to entertain rather than to inform.

    Although I must say that I did watch part of the first episode but was reaching for the remote by about 9.30.

  7. Martin
    Paris Hilton

    Who would they call ?

    It doesn't matter really - they'd only end up going through an automated options system before

    being redirected to a call centre in India or some foreign parts.

    Paris... foreign parts.. Heh heh!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Ged Perryman

    GHOSTBUSTERS

    couldn't resist

  9. James

    Battery life

    Even if the infrastructure of these communication systems survive, how long are the hand held units going to stay charged for? Or maybe I missed the bit in the article that talks about local power generation.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Has TV quality got so bad...

    ... that viewers don't even expect the story to attempt to be self-supporting? Is the show a victim of this or a cause.

  11. Nick
    Stop

    One Vital Element.

    You've mentioned systems that can keep running - especially the iridium network. This is all fine and dandy, and yes you should be able to communicate for a while, but what happens at the end of each billing cycle? If their systems don't recieve payment from the customer (eg because all the bankers have either died or gone to Bradford in their Audi's) then the service providers computers will eventually decide that this person's arrears are too great and suspend the service. So, whilst the communication facilities might exist, whether you're able to or not is a different matter.

  12. Poopie McStinklestein
    Happy

    The other thing

    "The other thing about wireless communication is it tends to be a two way thing... so who you gonna call?"

    Meh, I'll just play music, and espouse my worldly views and wisdom on 40 metres.

  13. Eddie Edwards
    Happy

    Dan Brown?

    Was the new Survivors script written by Dan Brown?

    It has the same quality of "Oh God this is shit but I just want to find out what happens next."

    Definitely way more than 90% fatalities, as Ged points out.

    Also, let's not be so credulous about how all this infrastructure will *actually* cope. It may be specced to do something but that doesn't mean it will actually do it.

    The bit about phones being powered from the line made me laugh too. It's been 10 years since I had a phone that didn't require a wallwart. And if you think BT's customer service is bad now, wait until they're all dead.

  14. Jim

    Power still the same though

    The program makers could have got around all this by just staging the remake in the 1970's, like the original. To make it realistic in a 2008 setting, they would have had to consult engineers and lots of other people usually overlooked by the "man in the street". And even the man in the street has a better grasp of engineering than the media types responsible for Survivors.

    Nice article, but the summary is that all comms would stop a few hours after the national grid. Hopefully things will be different in another 30 years, when we will all have personal fusion reactors.

  15. Lottie

    What about carrier pigeons? A wireless, mains free eddible WAN

    I like this series so far, but I love most post apoc. stuff :-)

    I hope I'm not as daft as some of them though if it all came real. After all, almost all of them seem to have forgotten to arm themselves.

    @ Conrad Longmore: Agreed.

  16. jai

    good article

    anythign that gives us a good heads up on how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world gets my vote

    but please, we also need a guide on how to acquire and appropiately modify a '73 Ford XB Falcon Coupe

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    are they kidding

    quote

    volunteers making up Raynet,- the wireless comms equivalent to the St John's Ambulance,

    who you trying to kid !!!!! , no more than want ta be plastic policemen

  18. Steven Jones

    Silly Article

    It's hardly worth commenting about the article itself as it is almost as silly as the TV programme.

    However, there is a serious subject regarding the robustness of modern civilisations being so reliant on technology and specialists. Medieval Europe suffered a population loss of between 40 and 60% (estimates vary) duing the 14th century due to the Black Death. However, society bounced back as it was inherently resilient - communities were self-sufficient, the population were largely generalists and able to survive. It did have huge social effects - the start of the ending os feudal serfdom in England for a start.

    However, we do not live in such a society - we live in one with a huge diversity of narrow specialists. It doesn't greatly matter if the cellphone network keeps running autonomously for a few days or weeks. When the limited number of specialists who understand a key componewnt die then so does your system. Western civilisation is based on a whole series of very finely balanced systems. Modern business and society places an emphasis on efficiency, specialisation and centralisation. It builds in resilience to what might be called minor catastrophes - say the loss of a single oil refinery. However, it is not robust at a systemic level - look at what happened with the petrol price protests when fuel distribution was stopped for just a few days. Look at what happened to those much vaunted financial risk assessments by individual banks once the trickle of defaults turned into a cascade.

    The one obvious thing on Survivors (which, in the TV series at least, must have been showing death rates of 99.99% or more is that at least the population was reduced to a level where sustainable approaches using primitive technology could be used (and lots of tinned food). However, the reality if one of the key components on which western civilisation depends would be unpleasant indeed. Maybe not a 99.99% death rate but distinctly nasty.

    For those who point to modern technological understanding being too good for such a catastrophe to happen - well there have been plenty of civilisations that have failed before due to environmental or other issues. It would be complacent (to say the least) to think we are immune and we also have this little problem that the World's population is perhaps 15 times greater than at the time of the black death.

    New Scientist ran a special on this a few months ago - worth looking up, especially for politicans and business leaders. Many El Reg hacks have this entertaining, almost Victorian complacency about the inevitability of progress. This article is as shot full of holes as the TV series.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Yay! Bring on the pox!

    At least those f*cking awful Comtrend / BT Vision Power Line Adaptors would fall silent and wouldn't be illegally polluting the sodding HF spectrum!

  20. Steve
    Thumb Up

    @Jai

    Okay, I've not started watching Survivors yet, but based on previous film experience.

    Arm yourself. If you're in the US this should be easy. In the UK it's slightly harder, so ideally buy some weapons in advance and hide them in your cellar.

    Modify your gas guzzler with dynamite.

    Drive to the desert and then drive around hunting for fuel for your gas guzzler.

    Fight in the thunderdome (the weapons you cached earlier will be useful here).

    Also - learn to camp, learn to hunt (what in the UK I'm not sure, dog maybe), learn to fish, learn to entertain yourself as you will no longer be able to watch reality TV (see the apocalypse has it's upsides as well).

    Plan how to avoid and when found how to fight off super strong zombies. Note, locking yourself in the basement with no route of escape and a phosphorous grenade is not a good plan.

    Being a good gardener wouldn't hurt either, there'll be plenty of allotments available and thus you'll have all the vegetables you can eat (only when they're in season though).

    If the series is based on a 90% death rate why exactly does all the infrastructure fail? Presumably with 10% of the population still alive (that's 6 million people) there would be enough of any given speciality around to keep things running. After all load on the grid is going to be pretty low with only 1/10th of the population drawing on it, so a few power stations operating should probably provide sufficient power. The nuclear ones require minimal maintenance right?

    We might suffer shortages of things that we import, so primarily that's petrol, but that said if there were enough oil rig guys left the north sea fields should be plenty for the survivors.

    Meh - what's the big deal, 90% of people dead means a hell of a lot of resources freed up for the remaining 10%.

  21. Gary Myers

    They always forget CB and Amateur

    In 28 days, the "hereos" walk past a truck on a bridge in London and ignore it in favour of a taxi. Chances are it had lots of diesel and a CB. I would have driven that to Dover and called across the channel for help. But I'm an Engineer and cannot watch disaster shows: They simply assume those left have no Engineering or medical skills and I would find that hard to believe!

  22. Stuart Crook
    Thumb Down

    A remake?

    Survivors would be bad enough as an original bit of TV, but now I discover it's a remake... Anyone else remember the good old days when we could bemoan the Beeb funding pseudo-SF-ish junk like this rather than bringing back Doctor Who?

    @Conrad Longmore: Yep, definitely need some zombies.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Stop

    GTPS

    "Unlike ACCOLC the GTPS blocks both incoming and outgoing calls - those cut off don't even get a dial-tone." Not unless they have changed it very recently does it work like this. It is true that those cut off do not get dial tone but incoming calls are not affected. Obvious when you think about is as the powers that be would want to be able to call anyone, not just other members of the favoured few.

    AC as I used to work for the largest landline company in the UK

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    landline phones

    problem is most people now have cordless landline phones which do require a power supply, they even have a warning about having an alernative means of emergency contact if power is lost, so it's not that implausible given the base station is off people would assume the whole lot has given up.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    90% survival

    It is 90% survival actually. It's just that most of the survivors are concentrated in Madagascar.

  26. YumDogfood

    @Eddie Edwards

    > And if you think BT's customer service is bad now, wait until they're all dead.

    Yes, it would be startling improvement.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not familiar with the series but...

    Most of the referred to back up communications would only work for the emergency services who also happen to be the people most exposed to a "plague" type thingy.

    The 1-10% remaining would likely be weird hippy types living off grid in the hills. As such they would immediately condemn any technology as "destroying the planet".

  28. Richard
    Thumb Up

    @Poopie McStinklestein

    And the broadcast stations between 7.1 -7.2MHz would be gone :) Woo!

    --... ...-- / -.. . / -- ----- ... -. .-.

  29. Chris Jackson
    Thumb Down

    And the point?

    What's your point? It seems that in one sentence you are saying that ... the network will continue with battery backup - so you can make calls... then "in an emergency the government will likely invoke ACCOLC".

    So in other words, the net effect is the same... When 99% of the population dies - telephony is fucked.

    Although this story is far fetched and stupid - it doesn't matter how many batteries you've got for backup - the network will die... What do you suggest they do... start dialling from 0111 111 1111 to see if anyone answers?

    And RayNet?? Errr --- remember 99% of RayNet are dead as well FFS.

  30. Richard

    @AC re Raynet

    When the Twin Towers came down, emergency comms went off-line because the antennas and repeaters were on top of the buildings.

    Radio Amateurs from many States came in to assist and set up emergency communications, purely voluntarily. Same with the Boxing Day Tsunami - A lot of Radio Amateurs were involved in the relief effort.

    When comms goes titsup, we are expected to help and it is our duty.

    I really hate the term "Amateur....."

  31. Steve Pettifer

    Raynet fail?

    Surely Raynet will die shortly after local power? I can't imagine too many volunteers having access to long term backup power generation...

  32. Michael

    90% dead...

    Well, assuming it's a plague that strikes down anyone without the appropriate immunity, maybe said immunity is hereditary and they're just focusing on the ravaged regions of the country while [insert your own choice of inbred county] has barely suffered at all.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    TETRA not so reliable as you make out

    TETRA handsts cannot talk directly to each other, or at least some cannot. Police ones required the unit to register with a talkgroup when they switch on, and the economic use of frequencies is handled by the central computer for that system telling all radios from a group "e.g. F Division or Traffic" to send and received on channeld x, and then a few seconds later on channel Y etc.. This allows there to be more talkgroups than frequencies, saving on spectrum costs as most channels are silent alot of the time. This also invloves agile frequency hopping which also provides reasonable security without encryption. If a set is lost/stolen it can be de-registered centrally and therefore never gets the updates. It might be possible to register with a local vehicle based "server" but I dont know either way. I would guess many other services have a similar provision for security purposes.

    St. John Ambulance (its not St. John's Ambulance, he never owned one and he's dead anyway) and many other voluntary aid societies dont use these regularly, sometimes getting them on loan so their control can liaise with the statutory services. The sets are too expensive and for the majority of their work, local talk is all that is required (e.g. every football stadia in London is playing at the same time, you would need too many talkgroups). The standard stuff used is VHF, and comms offices have advised that so long as the batteries/vehicles can keep charged, this is probably the most reliable when it all goes titsup big time.

    Certainly on 7/7 i was operating as a St John Member. Airwave failed the LAS in many regards (not all) and mobiles all went down on us so the VHF served us well then. I think you'll find that wise statutory services comms officers never quite let all the old kit go to landfil. Just in case.

    AC now they have started arresting non-party members

  34. GrahamT
    Boffin

    How to enjoy Survivors...

    Suspend disbelief. Stop thinking it is a documentary and realise it is fiction. If fiction had to make sense there would me no HHGTTG, Discworld or Shakespeare and the world would be a poorer place.

    btw @Mark Savage, antibiotics don't work with viruses - it is a 'flu virus that kills everyone off in Survivor. If antibiotics worked with viruses we could wipe out the common cold. (and we can't) The writers got that right and you got it wrong.

    Taking all the above comments at face value: A 'flu epidemic hits the world, everyone has a shot of antibiotics and gets better; while they are ill all the infrastructure keeps on working; people don't go feral; civilisatition doesn't break down; there is plenty of food, energy and fuel.

    WHERE'S THE STORY?

    FFS, it is a good SF story well told with good actors. Enjoy it as a piece of fiction. If you don't like it, switch off and go back to finding continuity errors in Quantum of Solace.

  35. Stu
    Alert

    Maplins.

    Good point about Maplins - No national grid? Fair enough, go to Maplins and take all the Walkie Talkies, plus battery spares, etc, and you also take the Solar panels, wind generators etc to keep the buggers going day in day out.

    Jobs a goodun!

    Also what with all the electronics kit projects, you could come up with some kind of a PMR446 repeater station technology to increase the range, each base station can also be charged up via wind/solar power. Make your own mobile phone infrastructure!

    Plus if you're not getting enough exercise post apoc, you could generate power from a bicycle + dynamo.

    Come summer time, and its solar delights, I might even be able to fire up my PS3 and play Fallout 3!

  36. jeffrey
    Thumb Up

    Base Stations

    Motorola do basestations entirely powered by wind and solar. Of course that doens't help the fact that it relies on a central MSC, but it is a start.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Happy

    Why expect realism

    Several times the heroes of the piece popped into town to loot a supermarket. If it were me I'd be straight into Waitrose or M&S, but what did the survivors choose? Lidl.

    And you expect a realistic approach to comms?!?

    That said, as a bit of mindless entertainment I'm quite enjoying it .

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Airwave

    Pity El Reg failed to notice that Airwave was sold over a year ago, and is a standalone company now

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    *Nothing* will work after a few days

    The power stations will be dead, there will be no gas, no pumped fuel, no pumped water, no pumped sewage, the main telephone network will be dead, the mobile networks will be dead. There will be no manufacturing (no change there) and even the internet will be dead.

    Kill 90% of the population and everything will be offline for YEARS.

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Happy

    1975, when dinosaurs roamed the earth

    If you're going to do a piece having a pop at current shortcomings in technology awareness, it's probably a good idea to get your historical stuff right.

    "The original Survivors was broadcast before the transistor enabled cheap electronics everywhere ..."

    The transistor was invented in 1948, the first Integrated Circuit ('IC,'chip') was produced in 1958. By 1975 most consumer electronics in the UK had abandoned valves for transistors and integrated circuits - even larger appliances such as TVs, where they hung on for longer to cope with the larger currents and very high voltages.

    I know, I was there - having been 'invented' just after the IC ;-)

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    yellow pages

    First thing I'd do is open a yellow pages and look up gunsmiths most will have a nice selection of shotguns .22 rifles etc, my second trip would be to the nearest Army/Navy/RAF base to do a little browsing in their armoury maybe pick up the odd truck or two possibly a nice low mileage APC and plenty of secure radio gear even if the maplins stuff is better.

  42. Charles Calthrop
    Thumb Down

    yeah, but even with a phone, what are you going to do?

    Having them get a phonebook, a land line and a rota for divving up the people in the book in order to ring them up and go 'hello, are you still alive?' is not gripping telly.

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin

    @ AC: Re : GTPS

    When I started working for the largest landline company in the UK. I was shown the "E Switch(s)" in the Exchange.

    The first would cut off all O/G from residential subscribers/customers.

    The second switch would cut off all O/G to business subscribers/customers.

    The third switch would the cut off Pay-phones, I/C & O/G* leaving only the Emergency Services.

    They were all locked, so it was not possible to flick it by mistake.

    Last time I remember it being used was during the 'Hurricane' of 1987.

  44. Someone

    Couldn’t get past the opening titles

    The series was billed as “One virus. Millions dead. A few Survivors.” The opening titles contain a few pictorial representations of a virus, but mostly it’s bacteria. If the show’s makers couldn’t tell the difference between the two, I didn’t think there was much hope for the rest of it. About the absence of zombies, they must have all been busy appearing in Channel 4’s Dead Set. That was a good watch. Let’s hope the Beeb doesn’t ruin The Day of The Triffids with their remake of that.

  45. Warhelmet

    Meh Too

    Maplins? I think I'd go to Screwfix. Petrol and gas powered tools, as well as heaps of batteries for cordless tools. Or what about a battery factory? Or a car spares place- all those lovely lead acid batteries.

    Oh no. You want big diesel generators. Try a fun fair or a military base. Or a hospital.

    I remember the original series. I've got a paperback of it somewhere as well.

    Of course, it's implausible entertainment.

  46. gigitrix
    Linux

    cool

    interesting to see the realistic side to this. Of course, we know survivors is a work of fiction but it is always educational to learn what happens if things really do go "down the pan"

    Tux- Because animals are immune to the virus

  47. Chris
    Thumb Down

    Sod the technology

    Imagine living in the aftermath of a 90-99% death rate.

    Imagine the corpses with no one to dispose of them... Yuk. Still, no shortage of food for the cats, dogs, rats, foxes, etc. Until the carrion runs out!

    Then lack of comms becomes the least of your worries.

  48. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Isn't the real problem with Survivors

    That it's a terrible remake of a frankly-not-very-good original?

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    And the worst part

    ...is that this crap is likely to be exported to the US on BBC America. Does this writer know anything about basic silicon based electronics as they exist today?

    Nail any silicon based solid state device, diode, transistor, or integrated circuit, with an electromagnetic pulse and it dies.

    If someone popped a device capable of creating a nuclear weapon style EMP over your head, not only does your power grid die of overload, so does your entire exposed communications infrastructure (pretty much anything non-military). All of your commercial computing infrastructure (so how well shielded is your DC anyway?) will die, along with all of your home & consumer electronics. And last but not least, your entire transportation infrastructure will freeze up, because very nearly all motor vehicles built during the past 25-30 years use some form of semiconductor based control system, be it an electronic fuel injection or ignition system, and/or a microprocessor based engine management unit.

    Pretty much the only things left in working condition will be antique radio sets built with vacuum tubes, and your neighbor's '71 VW Beetle. Old school semiconductors, vacuum tubes, resistors and capacitors, are pretty much immune to EMP. A 40 year old car, will liely have a mechanical fuel pump, a carburetor, and an ignition system that uses points and a condenser, so it will still run. Older diesels from that era, with mechanical pumps and injectors fall into the same category. Newer diesels - forget about them - they're likely to use EFI.

    I'm really astonished that such a rosy picture of life after a modern WMD holocaust would be posted in an article on the Reg.

    This article was technically inaccurate rubbish. Get it together people.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    90% fatality rate

    They said in the show that it was a 90% fatality rate. Which makes some sense - more people would die in cities than in rural areas due to the concentration of people.

    Anyway, the first episode was definitely way too long. I was too bored by the end to watch the second episode on iPlayer. Will get round to doing it sometime.

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