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.
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.“