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What Happens to Our Cell Phones in an EMP Attack?

Aerial View Of Illuminated Cityscape By River At Night

We’ve become so dependent on our cell phones that it’s hard to imagine life without one always with us. But suppose our electric grid is attacked, either through a cyber attack or something more onerous, such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon and resulting EMP attack. What happens to our phones?

Our grid is a known target of cyber criminals who’ve tried to attack it using software sent to power plants. A physical attack also took place in San Jose, Calif., in 2013. According to CNN, the attack — which nearly took out power to parts of Silicon Valley — has been called "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred" by the nation's top electrical utility regulator.

And now an even more serious event threatens the grid.

North Korea, in describing their recent detonation of a hydrogen bomb, also said that the bomb “is a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power, which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP attack.” This was the first time they've mentioned EMP, a term that’s familiar to our military and survivalist communities. Unfortunately, it's now going to become familiar to the rest of us.

So what would happen to our cell phones in the event of an EMP attack? If we assume that the attack takes down most of the grid, the news is not good — but we likely will have much bigger problems than calling home.

Actually, cell networks are not totally dependent on the grid and are becoming less so. Many of the existing cell towers are being converted to solar or diesel power, and there’s a worldwide trend to power many of the new towers using solar power, particularly in isolated areas around the world with limited access to electrical lines.

New cell networks are using smaller towers and employ a greater density of cell sites. The use of more compact antennas and less powerful radios allows the carriers to increase coverage and use less overall energy. Additionally, solar is becoming more cost-effective because trenches or poles need not be installed for electrical lines, which is a large part of the cost. Two years ago Panasonic announced their Green Tower solar-powered site.

But there's still a long way to go. In statistics cited by Scientific American four years ago, the U.S. has only 285,000 cell sites — fewer than one percent — that are not connected to the electrical grid. Africa, on the other hand, has fewer than half its towers connected to electricity. It’s somewhat ironic that in the case of an electrical outage, those countries with less advanced infrastructures would come out ahead.