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California lawmakers pushes for back-up power for cellphone towers in high-risk fire areas

When the nation’s largest electric utility preemptively shut off power last fall to prevent wildfires in California, customers lost more than just their lights – some lost their phones, too.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission shows 874 cellphone towers were offline during an Oct. 27 power shutoff that affected millions of people. That included more than half of the cell towers in Marin County alone.

On Wednesday, some Democratic lawmakers revealed legislation to force telecommunication companies to have at least 72 hours of back-up power for all cellphone towers in high-risk fire areas. Telecom companies would have to pay for it, but the bill would not stop companies from passing along those costs to their customers.

The outages affected more than just cellphones. Data shows traditional landlines and cable phone customers also lost service during the blackout. That means some people couldn’t call 911 or receive emergency notifications, compounding the dangers associated with an unprecedented power outage in an era dominated by the internet and wireless communications.

“This bill is not about checking your Facebook status,” bill author Sen. Mike McGuire said. “It’s about life and death.”

The federal government tried to mandate backup power for cellphone towers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The industry successfully fought it.

“It is unfair and unreasonable for the Legislature and the (state regulators) to allow the electric utilities to de-energize their networks and expect that the communications network is going to become a wholesale replacement for power,” said Carolyn McIntyre, president of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Asked if he expects a fight from the industry, McGuire replied: “Hell yes.”

McGuire announced his bill on the same day representatives from AT&T and Verizon testified before state lawmakers about the outages and ways to prevent them. It’s the second time lawmakers have hauled in private companies to account for the effects surrounding the widespread blackouts in the fall, the largest planned power outages in state history.

In November, lawmakers questioned executives from the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, including the leadership of troubled Pacific Gas & Electric, whose equipment has been blamed for sparking the 2018 that killed 85 people in Paradise and destroyed roughly 19,000 buildings. The company filed for bankruptcy last year.

Telecommunications outages have worsened as wildfires have become more common and more destructive. A report from the California Public Utilities Commission found 85,000 wireless customers and 160,000 wired customers lost service during the 2017 North Bay Fires.

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