April 06, 2021 Road Warrior

The Road Warrior Looks at Power Failures

Jeffrey Allen
It’s crucial to have backup options such as power banks, emergency power supplies, and multiple Internet sources.

It’s crucial to have backup options such as power banks, emergency power supplies, and multiple Internet sources.

Gregory_DUBUS/iStock via Getty Images Plus

We all know that the world has changed in the last year. Although the experience proved incredibly painful in many respects, some of the changes it caused will work for the better; some will not. Some of the changes will impact the way we practice law. Some will bear on the things we deal with as road warriors, particularly because, in our brave new (post-pandemic) world (apologies to Mr. Huxley), so many more lawyers will work as road warriors and so many more things can go wrong.

Most of you know that I live and work in California. For those of you who follow the news, you likely know that climate change and other factors have conspired to cause California to have many serious wildfires during the last several years. Due to the fact that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has been determined to have some responsibility for igniting many of those fires, California has seen intentional power shutdowns by PG&E during the last few years. Likely, more will come going forward. This year we had major weather problems that resulted in massive power outages in many locations throughout the country. Likely this won’t be the last time we have that problem. Sometimes, power outages result from automobile accidents or other significant events. Then, of course, we have the everyday, ordinary, something-went-wrong-with-the-equipment type of power shutdown. Any power outage, without regard to cause, can impact services that we depend on to practice law. Without power we cannot operate desktop computers, and laptops are limited to the duration of battery power. Ultimately, virtually all the technology we rely on depends on having power available.

Power shutdowns can severely negatively impact your practice, if not close it down temporarily. During the pandemic we have come to rely heavily on videoconferencing for almost everything: client meetings, court appearances, CLE courses, bar meetings, etc. Videoconferencing requires the availability of substantial bandwidth and high-speed Internet. Both require power at the user’s end and the Internet service provider’s (ISP’s) end. The loss of power at the user’s end prevents Internet access by the user. At the ISP’s end, it renders access unavailable to all affected subscribers.

Let’s consider what happens when power goes down, and what you can do to minimize your exposure. If you need to connect to the Internet to do your work (as you do for online legal research or for video appearances or client videoconferences), a power failure may stop your Internet connection, particularly if you use WiFi. Even if you don’t, if your modem or router is not connected to an emergency power supply, it will not transmit the required signal to allow you to access the Internet. Worse yet, sometimes a power outage causes your ISP to lose the ability to supply service to you. Often in power failures, we have experienced cell towers not functioning. This means no cell calls and no cellular access to the Internet from places served exclusively by the non-functioning tower. My ISP also provides cable television service to our house, and in some power failures, we have lost both Internet and television service. As I work mostly out of my house, that has posed a serious problem for me. The end result is that I have worked out a somewhat involved system of redundancy and backup options to enable me to continue to work under a variety of circumstances and through almost any problem.

If you work on a desktop, you hopefully have an emergency power supply connected to your computer so that, if the power goes down, your computer continues to work for a while. If you do not have an emergency power supply, you should get one. If you work on a laptop, you have a device with a built-in battery that will work without external power until the battery runs down. Having an emergency power source available can facilitate your continuing to work during the outage. If you are an experienced laptop traveler, you likely have one or more power banks that will run your laptop when you do not have a wall socket available and your laptop battery runs out of power. If you do not have such a device, you should get one.

Before the pandemic shut down the coffee shops, it was easy enough to get in my car and go to a coffee shop, connect to their Internet access, and use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect my security while on the public Internet connection. Never use public WiFi without a VPN! Most coffee shops had enough electrical outlets that I could find one and, if not, I always had backup in the form of power banks. Nowadays, you cannot go inside a coffee shop in most places. Some have outdoor seating; some have continued to make their Internet access available for you to connect to outside the coffee shop. I have not encountered any that have brought electricity outside the shop for patrons to use.

So, we know the problem. How do we address it? What can we do to minimize it? How do we survive it?

As I have always advised attorneys who use technology (which nowadays includes almost all attorneys to one extent or another), you always need a backup plan.

Technology Will Fail

This is an absolute law of the universe. Generally, we do not know when it will fail. Generally, we do not know how it will fail. We just know that it will fail at some time. You all should know by now that if you plan to use technology to present your case at a trial, you should make sure that you have backup equipment in case your equipment fails. Accordingly, I will always take a backup laptop, a backup iPad, and a backup projector with me to trial. For a long time, I did not worry about power. I suspect most of you have been the same way. We just assumed it would be available and probably carried a relatively small backup power supply (power bank) as part of our travel gear. Over the last few years, it has grown painfully obvious that we need to consider power availability as part of the backup plan at a far more serious level. I cannot give you statistical support for this, but in my experience in the last few years, power failures represent the most significant source of technology failures that I have to deal with. Sometimes we have advanced notice of such failures (for example, when PG&E plans a power shutdown, it announces it several days ahead of time). Other times we get none (for example, when a blown transformer, an earthquake, or a car accident causes the power outage). The bottom line is and will remain that technology not only gives us power, but it also requires power to operate it; without power, our work grinds to halt.

Technology Will Fail at the Most Inopportune Time

This observation is a corollary to the axiom that technology will fail. The combined effect of these two concepts has generated my latest warning: those who live by technology must have a backup plan to avoid dying by technology. (FYI, despite the fact that we likely all secretly pray that our technology does not fail, that is as close to a religious quote as I will ever use; if you did not know it, the phrase from which I derived this warning [“those who live by the sword die by the sword”] actually has a biblical genesis.)

For reasons related to my concern about the power supply as well as my concern about the steadily increasing cost of electricity and my concern about the environment, I installed solar panels on my house in 2019. As a result, my PG&E bill for electricity has dropped by about 80 percent. Because I remained concerned about the possibility of losing power when I could not afford to, in August 2020 I installed a Tesla Powerwall as a solar-charged battery to supply my house. I am actually thinking about getting a second one as a recent outage lasted so long that the battery could not charge enough during the day to supply the needs in the day and the evening. As an aside, I will tell you that during the period I have had the Powerwall, it has stepped up to solve a power failure on nine separate occasions. The duration of the time of use has ranged from one minute to 43 hours and 49 minutes (that’s the one that got me thinking about a second Powerwall). The single Powerwall worked for the second-longest outage of 20 hours. Installing solar panels and solar batteries can help or even solve the problem in terms of loss at whatever location you make that installation. It cannot solve the problem if your ISP loses power in general or the cell tower(s) that serve your location go down. Bottom line: This is a partial solution, but you need more. In the following paragraphs, I will outline for you what I have done respecting power protection in addition to the solar panels and solar battery.

Power Banks

I have favored power banks for some time and have carried with me power banks of various capacities for various reasons for many years. My primary uses of the power bank have historically been for my smartphone, my iPad, my Kindle, and, more recently, my laptops as the capacity of the available power banks has increased and the requirements of the laptops have decreased to the point of intersection.

Emergency Power Supplies

Emergency power supplies are like a power bank but bigger and more powerful. Comparing a power supply to a power bank is sort of like comparing a steamer to a sailboat. Like a power bank, the power supply functions as a large battery. Due to the amount of power they hold, they generally are much larger and much heavier than the power banks you can fit in your pocket or a briefcase. While you have a fair number to choose among, I like the Jackery Explorer 1000 (http://www.jackery.com) the best. The Jackery Explorer 1000 costs $999.99 and provides 1002Wh of power. Despite its power, it has a compact appearance. I would not want to carry it around in my hand as it weighs a fair amount. I keep it in my garage, and when I am traveling with the plan of using my technology, it goes in the back of my car. If a power loss causes me to leave the house (my office) to handle a court appearance or client videoconference, the Explorer 1000 becomes the source of the power that I rely on to ensure that I have sufficient power to do what I need to do. For those of you into car camping, it is a valuable piece of equipment to take with you. For those of you who do not have solar panels and batteries in your home or business, it is a much lower-priced, much lower-powered alternative. I particularly like the Jackery as I can plug it into the wall and charge it when we have power, and I can also recharge it using a portable solar panel, such as the Jackery SolarSaga 100W ($299.99), when we have no power. If you don’t want to spend $999.99 for an Explorer 1000 and can do with a smaller power supply, Jackery also sells an Explorer 500 for $419.99 and an Explorer 240 for $199.99.

Internet Source

I prefer to use a non-cellular source for Internet access, particularly for videoconferencing, as cellular usage generally comes at a premium price. I can get Internet access using cellular devices, and, sometimes, I have no other viable option. Note, however, that if you use the same provider for your cellular connection and your Internet connection at your office or home and one goes down, the odds increase that the other will as well. For that reason, I have always kept my cellular provider different than the building ISP. For reasons of redundancy, I actually have multiple potential cellular sources of Internet access. My iPhone uses AT&T service and can function as a hot spot in a pinch. As I already had a separate cellular hot spot using Verizon (and still do), I added my iPads to the Verizon account. That gave me the option of using either AT&T or Verizon as a cellular ISP if needed. As we became more and more mobile, I added another feature from Verizon to my bag: a Hum connection for my car. The Verizon Hum system gives me a mobile cellular hot spot in my car, allowing me to use whatever functioning Verizon tower I am near as the source. It also has some other useful features, but they have no relevance to this discussion, so I won’t go into them here. I have not yet needed to do a court appearance from my car, but I know of others who have. Not an ideal situation, but sometimes you just don’t have any other good options.

As I enjoy traveling out of the country and both AT&T and, in particular, Verizon, cost a significant amount of money for cellular service and Internet access outside the United States, I acquired a cellular hot spot device that works internationally. I get access that way when I travel, but the device also has the ability to access the Internet in the United States. I purchased some U.S. access time just in case I need to switch to it in an emergency. When you set up such devices, make sure your networks have password protection. I also encourage you to use a VPN with them at all times.

Remember, technology generates power but also requires it!

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Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. He is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of GPSolo magazine and the GPSolo eReport and serves as an editor and the technology columnist for Experience magazine. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he is coauthor (with Ashley Hallene) of Technology Tips for Lawyers and Other Business Professionals (ABA, 2016).