In a Stephen King's "The Stand" type situation- how long does the internet work?

How long can electricity run unmonitored in a large city?
As I understand it, as long as there is electricity to the air conditioning and to the servers, they will run for a long time unmonitored. So conceivably you’d be able to access the internet (or at least parts of it) through normal means for awhile before servers start to crash or lose power.
Is this right?

I assume there’s a lot of factors that come into play, I just don’t know them. I’m curious to learn more.

This question comes up fairly frequently. It is even a current thread in our Staff Reports forum.

I think the staff report is missing a pretty big element - unit commitment and frequency and voltage control. The load in a control area is extremely volatile and units need to be committed and decommitted as well as ramped up and down in order to match load in order to keep the system running. I work on the trading floor of one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S. and our floor is also jointly responsible for unit commitment decisions.

If there were no people to commit and decommit units, along with controlling the ramps (basically turning them up and down from min to max loads and in between) then you’ll lose power pretty quickly as frequency flies out of control. Most systems have some AGC (automatic generation controls) that do the minute changes to gen in order to keep a steady 60, but they can’t deal with the changes that occur during what we call the peaks and valleys. There’s no way you could deal with going from night to day, you need to be able to bring units online.

So, I’m saying like 8 hours if you’re lucky. Maybe just a couple.

And it really doesn’t matter if you’re in a big city or some ho-dunk town. You would end up witha cascading blackout as the whole grid failed. And without anyone to isolate bad areas, it would spread near instantly. Well, you’d have a few seperate system failures as it probably wouldn’t jump the DC ties - so you’d have the eastern and western fail seperately and then some other little interconnects seperate as well - Texas, Quebec and Alaska. Note that the little guys would probably fall first due to their smaller size and less inertia.

Also, its not the servers you need to worry about as much as all the fiber and telecom exchanges. Lets say there are six routers between you and If a few of those are out then there might not be a path to google’s server. If the telecom your ISP buys bandwidth from is in an outtage area but you are not, then you’re still not getting internet.

In a apocalypse type scenario, internet would be one of the first things to go. Its too complex and too dependent on many other systems working together. While there’s a fair amount of robustness and redundancy, its really overplayed. In a “Captain Trips” like attack with 99% dead, you’ll lose wired communications pretty quickly. In a matter of hours morese than days.

A few hours? Crap, that screws up my zombie plan.


The internet was initially a DARPA initiative to enable more robust communications in case of a nuclear war. The old, telephone-like model were point-to-point links. Packet switching technology was invented to allow data to find multiple routes to a destination. If one router goes down the data will find another route.

The routers themselves are pretty robust things to. They do not need constant maintenance to keep working. You could leave one on for months without touching it and it’ll bang along just fine.

As long as power is available the internet should keep working…certainly longer than the power will last in most cases. Over time bits and pieces will start dropping out as power fails. For a while the internet can manage around the missing pieces or certain areas may become unavailable. In the end though I think it’ll be the loss of electricity that ends it.

I think the “nuclear proof” internet is something of a myth, especially considering how fast its expanded and how much of it is privately owned. Why would an ISP keep its network up to military spec or provide generators for outtages? Especially these last-mile ISPs like comcast or telecos providing residential service?

A lot of these companies run with a minimal budget and I’ve seen first hand what one flakey upstream router can do. All this stuff works in theory. In real life, not so much. Everyday there are thousands of support tickets created for downed T1 lines, bad circuits, cut wires, cut fiber, etc. Honestly, if 99% of the people in the world died, then very few complex things will work. No power, no internet, no TV, etc. Heck, with those odds, anyone who knows how to operate a HAM radio will probably be dead too. Your biggest concern wont be if google is up, but what to do with all this quickly rotting food.

Yes, but you’d expect the load to be far, far more stable in your zombie post-apocalypse world, right? I mean, there’s no more population to wake up and turn on the television and air conditioner and warm up their coffee in the microwave while making toast. The lights that were on will stay on, ovens will be left on bake, and that volatility will vanish (maybe?).

Of course the counter-argument is probably that this rolling blackout will have happened already during electric worker zomibification.

Loads are going to start dropping off the grid almost immediately – if for no other reason than the fact that some buildings will burn from unattended fires. Normally the power company would adjust for the drop by taking generators offline, but without anybody manning the power stations, the voltage across the network will start to creep upwards. Eventually it will get high enough to blow out switches and transformers, triggering a cascading collapse of the grid.

My company’s servers at the bottom tip of Manhattan ran for nearly 4 days after 9/11 before the fuel for the generators ran out - couldn’t get a tanker truck down there to refill them. Most of our major telco links stayed up, too, though we lost one to the West St. CO when the side of the CO got ripped open during the collapse and flooded.

Was waiting for someone to mention this. Every major datacenter has its own power generation capability. The servers and AC OP refers to will probably be among the last things running, should the apocalyptic scenario Darth Panda describes actually occur.

This is a Cafe Society response to a General Questions thread, but there’s a Cory Doctorow story about exactly this topic at

Hmm. This makes perfect sense - I’m really curious about zombie apocalypses in general, so don’t take the interrogation as doubt. :slight_smile:

Our power grid doesn’t have the equivalent to a circuit breaker to automatically disconnect stuff before it fries?

I don’t work in power delivery, so this isn’t exactly my expertise - but in general, electric utilities are considerably less automated than most people would guess. You have to remember how old a lot of the infrastructure is. For instance, the typical way for us to find out about power outages is when you call us and tell us about it. That’s how automated it is. We are working on smart grid technology, but it will be a while (and a while for a power company is a lot longer than a while for anyone else) and you still have the whole unit decommitment problem.

As for load droppping right after the moment of zombification - yes, unless it happens in the middle of the night when most stuff is off anyway - the load drop might be small enough for AGCs to handle. But when morning rolled around, your load should either jump or fall depending on whether it’s winter or summer - if it’s summer, once the AC kicks in, it’s over - too much load. In the winter, you might actually make it a little longer, but some heating load would come off and combined with other load dropping, that should be enough to do it.

If it happens during the middle of the day, and all that load comes off at once, forget about it.