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California requires landline operators to have 72 hours of backup power for disasters

State regulators will require landline companies to ensure critical and vulnerable phone systems have 72 hours worth of backup power, a mandate imposed a little over a year after PG&E’s widespread, self-directed electricity shut-offs cut communications for hundreds of thousands of Californians.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to adopt the new backup battery requirements within a year and a half. The decision, laid out in a 107-page document, is meant to shore up legacy copper-wire landline service as well as internet-based phone networks, both of which have been plagued by problems during PG&E’s planned outages tied to extreme fire risk.

“These communities depend on wireline networks to call loved ones, to reach 911 and to receive emergency information and evacuation orders. When these networks go out, they are left, literally, with nothing, and therefore, their safety is in great question.” ― Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission

Affected companies include phone giants AT&T and Comcast, which have argued that backup power requirements would be burdensome, costly and ineffective.

Marybel Batjer, the president of the commission, called the decision “very challenging” and acknowledged the views of affected service providers but emphasized that the commission’s paramount concern is public safety, particularly for communities at risk of being cut off during emergencies.

“These communities depend on wireline networks to call loved ones, to reach 911 and to receive emergency information and evacuation orders,” Batjer said Thursday. “When these networks go out, they are left, literally, with nothing, and therefore, their safety is in great question.”

The new requirements are neither immediate nor universal. They cover only facilities in areas at higher risks for wildfires — the same regions that are more likely to endure the shut-offs PG&E and other utilities impose to help prevent their equipment from sparking blazes during hot, dry and windy weather.

California was hammered by those outages in late 2019, when several widespread shut-offs and the Kincade fire in Sonoma County severed cable, internet or landline telephone service for nearly 455,000 customers, according to federal data and previous Press Democrat reporting.

The strengthened landline requirements follow similar 72-hour backup power requirements the commission imposed on wireless companies operating in high-fire-risk areas in July. Wireless companies, which had a year to comply, appealed that decision.

Landline companies will have eight months to provide 72 hours backup power providing service for critical facilities like police stations and utility companies, as well as in areas that lack sufficient cell coverage. All other facilities in high-fire-threat areas will be covered by the commission’s mandate within 18 months.

The commission also has determined that only 3% of affected wired facilities have no backup power, with virtually all facilities covered by Thursday’s order already supported by some form of backup power.

But the 72-hour threshold represents a significant strengthening of the landline network, which provides a key backstop for a communications landscape increasingly dominated by cellphone use.

Landlines critical to rural areas

State officials have estimated that about 20% of 911 calls come into dispatchers from landlines, and hardwired phones are disproportionately more relied upon in hilly rural areas that are both less likely to have reliable cell service and potentially more prone to wildfires.

Copper-wire landlines have generally been thought to be more immune to widespread power outages than their wireless phone counterparts. But the late 2019 power shut-offs showed that was not the case. And when similar outages hit tens of thousands of Sonoma County customers last year, the loss of services was magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven people into their homes, forced them to rely on phone calls to stay in touch and made online work and schooling the temporary norm.

The commission’s decision also requires landline companies to file “communications resiliency plans” detailing how they can keep service going during disasters and outages, as well as annual emergency operations plans. It permits the use of diesel generators as a primary backup power source while directing providers to seek renewable energy options.

“For the purpose of this decision, we emphasize that we are not mandating where or how carriers should offer service, nor do we address the pricing or availability of any service currently offered,” the commission wrote. “The purpose of this rule is to ensure that customers, who are paying for service, continue to receive a minimum level of service in an emergency.“

AT&T, other companies react to latest order

Companies including AT&T and Comcast have previously argued that stricter backup power requirements might not be feasible given the breadth of their communications networks.

AT&T responded to the commission’s latest order with a measure of acceptance. It had previously argued that a 72-hour backup power requirement on wired communications services would be unnecessary and burdensome.

“We agree with the California PUC on the importance of keeping customers and first responders connected during emergencies, including power shutoffs,” an AT&T spokesperson said in a statement. “That is why we have invested more than $8.7 billion in our California networks from 2017 to 2019.”

The commission previously has faulted AT&T for failing to properly maintain its landline networks and called for higher fines for failure to provide quality service. AT&T settled those charges by agreeing to spend $11.8 million in lieu of fines in 2017 and 2018.

The spokesperson did not respond when asked what percentage of that $8.7 billion was to maintain or upgrade AT&T’s landline services and how much of that amount was meant to stave off fines.

Another landline carrier, Frontier Communications, "will be evaluating newly-adjusted requirements, and developing our plans for implementation and compliance,“ according to a spokesman. The commission also previously faulted Frontier’s landline network maintenance and settled with the company for more than $4 million.

Comcast has repeatedly noted that it relies on PG&E for its phone and internet operations and has said it would not be able provide backup power to all of its equipment in the scope of PG&E’s planned outages. Comcast declined to comment Thursday.

Carolyn McIntyre, the president of the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, the state trade group for the phone and internet industries, released a statement expressing appreciation for the commission’s “acknowledgment of the inherent challenges” of providing backup power and supporting the requirement’s prioritization of critical facilities.

“CCTA and our member companies will continue to focus on maintaining the resiliency of our networks to provide safe and reliable service across the state,” McIntyre said.

Batjer said the commission would be “watching closely” and would be prepared to modify the new rules if needed.

The Public Advocates Office, a consumer-focused agency within the commission, applauded the decision but urged quicker implementation due to the pandemic and the need to protect California’s ability to communicate ahead of the coming wildfire season.

“These difficult times are making Californians more dependent than ever on our phones and the Internet for communications to telework, visit a doctor via telehealth, attend school via distance learning, and be in touch with loved ones,” Elizabeth Echols, director of the Public Advocates Office, said in a statement. “Everyone should be able to rely on their phones and Internet during power outages, regardless of where they live or what kind of phone technology they have.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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