When Nero comes out of the singularity in the new Star Trek film (the one directed by J. J. Abrams), he hails the USS Kelvin and is able to communicate with them without any issues. There's a difference of about 150 years between the Narada's time and the Kelvin's time. The two ships are also not just a product of different times, but different technologies.

While it makes sense to be able to communicate with others in your own time period, a century and a half is a long time for technology to evolve and change. For example, in the 1980s, many computers communicated with dial-up modems and very few computers today use dial up.

How did the Narada communicate so easily with the Kelvin?

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    You can ask the same about any "first contact"-communication: how can they transmit an audio and video signal, when they never before met and agreed on a video codec?
    – Till B
    Commented Feb 11, 2012 at 18:28
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    Well, then, @TillB, since that sounds like a good question, why not ask it?
    – Tango
    Commented Feb 11, 2012 at 18:32
  • Dial-up is a bad example, as it is infrastructure-reliant. A better example would be Martin's explanation of the current state of broadcast television. However, see my comment (and answer) for reasoning as to why this limitation could be circumvented.
    – Iszi
    Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 3:58
  • A 2014 Naval vessel can still communicate with one from 1700, if it wished to. Either by using the same flag codes (ie semaphore) or just, you know, shouting.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 10:44
  • @JonStory: That's an entirely different situation. There is no, or low technology involved and line of sight from one person to another is not guaranteed in space. Which window do you look into? And once you can see someone in that other space ship, what do their movements mean? At one time in the 20th century all radios were basically AM (amplitude modulation), but later we learned to use FM (frequency modulation). A radio using one method cannot communicate with one using the other. Once technology becomes an issue, advance of technology becomes an issue.
    – Tango
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 2:28

4 Answers 4


Communication in Star Trek is across many standard channels, and those channels have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

Think of their communication not so much as dial-up versus high speed internet, but as radio versus digital radio.

Essentially, communication for a space-faring race is easy: You simply send a radio-like signal. Someone (possibly centuries ago) decided upon a standard set of frequencies to communicate on, a standard separation for audio and visual/data signals, and got it agreed to between most major races.

Since then, this protocol has existed. Humans learned it from the Vulcans, and it has spread across the Alpha quadrant. The Kelvin's communications could understand the Narada because they were both using standard, centuries-old protocols.

Even as technology has changed, we retain facets of older technologies. A radio from the 1890s could still pick up today's radio transmissions and play them (in the frequencies it could receive on).

It IS likely that, for example, Federation ships communicate with each other on other frequencies, or using different compression algorithms, or similar - all Federation ships would then have those protocols in memory. That would not, however, keep them from also having the standard protocols.

As for communication with new species, modern ships probably have a software equivalent of the Universal Translator - a bit of software that analyzes incoming signals, selects what is likely video versus audio versus data, and attempts to decode them - likely with the assistance of the communication officer and their department.

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    Your analog TV from 1990 wouldn't work anymore where there's only DVB-T; the same will eventually be true for radios and DAB/DRM. Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 1:45
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    @MartinSchröder But that doesn't mean that we don't have access to the technology necessary to broadcast to those TVs. The only reason those TVs won't work (in the U.S., at least) is that it's currently illegal to use that technology.
    – Iszi
    Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 3:28
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    +1, There are a couple instances throughout the run of Trek where they mention "outdated frequencies" or something like "that's a Romulan frequency!"
    – Izkata
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 22:57

It's rather simple, actually. While older technology is not always forwards-compatible, newer technology is usually (or can be altered to be) backwards-compatible. A simple example I'm familiar with is wireless computer networking protocols. Computers with 802.11b adapters may not be able to communicate with all 802.11g or 802.11n networks. But, those newer networks can be configured in such a way to work with the older technology. In fact, they usually are by default - they generally have to be told to ignore the older systems, if the network administrator doesn't want the legacy devices slowing down the newer ones.

Consider that starships often travel unexplored regions of the galaxy, and even known regions of the galaxy which have developing civilizations that may have made some significant technological leaps since they were last checked on. It would be in the best interest of those starships to be able to communicate with all manner of civilizations - known and unknown, and at varying levels of technological development. What would one do to remain prepared for such eventualities? Equip the starship with radio transceivers capable of operating on all known channels (known-used or unused), and program the computer with every communication protocol known to your civilization. Additionally, you would want to develop some algorithms by which the computer could determine the communications protocols (known and unknown) used by a given target by analyzing their own transmissions.

Computers in Star Trek are unimaginably powerful and have inconceivably large storage capacities, and most starships (especially the Narada) are unfathomably huge and technology-laden. Given this, it's not at all inconceivable that Nero's ship might be capable of communicating with something as primitive as John Logie Baird's televisions in the 1920s or with Guglielmo Marconi's experimental wireless telegraphs in the 1890s. So, communicating with a craft that's only 150 years old in relative age should really be a piece of cake.


Tradational radios were locked into one frequency, modulation format and encoding system, but even today your mobile phone is so called "software radio" capable of using multiple different standards depending upon the current requirement. Even with future technologies and alien races there are only so many variables. In the Star Trek universe, I assume that the ship's communication system is listening on all pratical frequencies whenever required. A coherent signal of sufficient power is obviously a radio signal ( unless its of natural origin, I assume that the ship would have a library of natural signals to ignore ) in which case a quick analyis would tell you the modulation format in use, and then a statistical analysis would give you the encoding format. This would probably take seconds at most with a Star Trek level computer. In other words the Romulan ship can transmit with a Romulan standard and the Federation ship with a Federation system and both quickly establish communication. An efficient communication standard is simple to use by definition. Of course since both parties want to communicate they make it simple to do so. For Star Trek the problem is more likely to be how to avoid someone hearing your secret signals and decoding them, a problem that has existed for centuries with different forms of communication.

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    But even mobile phones have problems with communicating with other systems, at least in the U.S., and those are hard wired problems. Verizon phones can't communicate with Sprint systems, for example.
    – Tango
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 22:06

I think the answer is rather simple. Technology hadn't changed that much. The 20th century is a particularly poor example for demonstrating the rate of technological change in human history, most likely because of the two world wars it featured (plus the Cold War), which spurred an abnormally rapid rate of change. It is entirely plausible for a civilization to reach a level of technological sophistication and comfort beyond which little further progress is needed or desired. People ask the same question about Star Wars: Why did everyone have the same technology - lightsabers, blasters, and starships - in the Old Republic Era thousands of years before the events of the movie trilogy? The above is the answer given.

It is also not difficult to imagine some technologies experiencing advancement while others stagnate. For example, prehistoric hunters used the bow and arrow before the dawn of civilization. Man was still using the exact same weapon, only slightly modified, on the top of castle walls in the Middle Ages, several thousand years later. The reason for this is that no better weapon could be devised. So the best answer to your question is that no better form of communication had been invented by Nero's time.

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