How to work from home when your internet goes out

Technology
Illustration by Samar Haddad / The Verge

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 desk is guarded by a Mallard Duck lamp. Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge
The easiest way to navigate a temporary outage is to tether from your smartphone.

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.

Newer satellite options, like Starlink, are still expensive but faster, though coverage isn’t available everywhere yet.

Staying connected away from home

A worker uses the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook in a cafe setting. Image: HP
A cafe might be happy to have your business, especially during off-peak hours.

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.

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.

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.

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