( FlickrCC/Michael Coghlan )

A single downed Internet cable was to blame for the massive holiday havoc at the Sacramento International Airport in the hectic days before Christmas, canceling flights, stranding passengers and forcing airline employees to check luggage and write out boarding passes by hand.

But the real culprit, said California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci, is telecom’s failure to create a more resilient communications network.

Two days of chaos — triggered when a drunk driver on a rural road, three miles from the airport, crashed into a utility pole holding an AT&T fiber-optic bundle on Dec. 23 — shows the network’s vulnerability, Ghilarducci said in testimony before state lawmakers on Wednesday about telecommunications outages and ways to prevent them.

“An unprotected single fiber line to critical infrastructure is unacceptable,” he said. “The reliability of these systems are inconsistent, or simply absent, with what’s necessary to ensure the delivery of the essential lifeline capabilities.

The incident follows public outcry over communication service failures during October wildfires and PG&E power shut-offs designed to reduce risk of downed utility lines during high-fire weather. Hundreds of thousands of Californians were without phone or internet service, according to federal reports. Residents feared they couldn’t call 911, reach family members or get evacuation warnings or escape routes.

Hospitals and 911 centers were unable to process critical data or pull up important records, said Ghilarducci.

Because the telecommunications companies did not have adequate backup plans, extra generators had to be rushed in from out of state, he said.

These generators, carried on trucks, were stopped at the border because they did not meet the state’s emissions standards — and required special exemptions.

“Lack of service is not a mere inconvenience — it endangers lives,” California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer told the lawmakers.

Also 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.

At the hearing, the CPUC released startling findings from an investigation of AT&T and Frontier/Verizon’s wireline reliability. A summary of the 2010-2017 report, released earlier this year but not publicized, found:

  • Deteriorating service quality. The quality of AT&T and Frontier voice services has steadily declined over the eight year period, with the number of outages increasing and the service restoration times getting longer.
  • Persistent disinvestment. The depreciation in the value of the AT&T and Frontier networks was greater than the companies’ capital investments. This was most pronounced in rural and low-income service areas.
  • Degradation of landline service and support. AT&T no longer actively markets “Plain Old Telephone Service,” or “POTS” and is instead promoting broadband service to grow revenues.
  • Failure to improve the network infrastructure to withstand bad weather or fire events. The companies’ engineering, design and construction, and maintenance practices are not as robust as they need to be.
  • Preferential focus on higher income communities. There is an inverse relationship between household income and wire center service quality performance. For instance, AT&T wire centers that have been upgraded with fiber optic disproportionately serve richer communities. Areas with the lowest household incomes have the highest trouble report rates, the longest out-of-service durations, and the lowest percentages of outages cleared within 24 hours.
  • Increased focus on the most competitive communities. AT&T and Frontier offer the greatest service in regions of the state where competition — and potential loss of customers — is greatest.

State law requires carriers to restore 90 percent of service outages for regular telephone service within 24 hours or less, on statewide average.

“Yet the largest service providers routinely fail to meet these requirements,” said CPUC commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen.

The problems identified for traditional phone service are being found in broadband and other types of service, as well, he said.

While AT&T has the financial resources to maintain and upgrade its wireline network in California, it has not done so, according to the CPUC. Frontier, in contrast, said it wants to invest in upgrades, but lacks the financial capacity.

“These findings are troubling,” said Rechtschaffen. “Consistent with our statutory mandates, we will continue with our investigations and our work to ensure that all Californians have fair access to essential services.”

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