The California Public Utilities Commission is demanding answers from cellphone companies after public outcry over service that failed during during last month’s wildfires and PG&E power shut-offs.
“Lack of service is not a mere inconvenience — it endangers lives,” Commission President Marybel Batjer wrote in a letter to the heads of eight major communication companies Wednesday. Despite advance notice by PG&E of possible outages, “failures in the communications network occurred on a significant scale,” she said.
During last month’s PG&E outages, hundreds of thousands of customers were without phone, TV, or internet service, companies reported to the Federal Communications Commission. At the worst point, more than 50 percent of cell towers in Marin County were out. Landlines in Mendocino County went down. Residents left in the dark feared they couldn’t call 911 or get evacuation warnings.
Alarmed by reports, the state utilities commission has called a public hearing on Nov. 20 to question executives from T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Frontier, Charter, Comcast, and Cox Communications. Batjer asked the companies to answer detailed questions on what systems failed and why and how much backup power they have. In the order calling for the hearing, Batjer also requested that officials from PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric attend.
Wireless carriers had told The Chronicle, echoing previous remarks they had made to regulators, that they had prepared cell sites with batteries and generators, but were hit like all customers by the unprecedented outages. They said they worked around the clock to put in place hundreds of generators, but couldn’t always access sites — for example, if they were on top of buildings or in fire evacuation zones.
Batjer also asked companies to address lack of communication with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, known as Cal OES, which sent its own letter during outages asking for similar information. Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci described the current level of engagement from companies as “unacceptable” in an Oct. 26 letter. Batjer said companies collectively didn’t provide adequate and specific answers, “nor did the responses show the level of transparency required to meet the moment given the challenges the state and its residents, many of which are your customers, were facing,” she said.
Federal officials and legislators including FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. and Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, also called for investigations into failed service.
Batjer said recent events exposed how vulnerable communications networks are to disasters. She said “the state relies on a patchwork of statutes and outdated rules that often hinder the state’s ability to ensure access to safe, reliable and affordable services.”
Neither California nor the federal government requires cell sites to have backup power. Companies said most cell towers have generators that last days during outages, but some have batteries that can survive only a few hours. When they run out, they need to be refueled — potentially in the middle of an ongoing crisis.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, introduced a bill this year that would require cell towers in zones with the highest fire risk to have at least 48 hours of backup power. But he now thinks it should be longer.
Of the eight communication companies sent the letter, only Comcast and Frontier responded to a request for comment Wednesday. Joan Hammel, a spokeswoman for the cable operator, confirmed the company received the letter and is “actively involved in responding and participating.” Frontier, a telephone company, said it would “promptly respond.”
Batjer in her letter said that companies’ independent efforts in the past two years have been “insufficient” to meet public safety needs as the state endured the deadliest and most catastrophic wildfires in its history.
“This isn’t just a matter of inconvenience, it’s an unacceptable and avoidable matter of life or death for many who need your services at the most critical times,” she said. “We no longer have the luxury of time and cannot wait any longer to address these problems.”
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