Cellphone companies reveal plans to maintain wireless service during PG&E power outages
The companies that operate Sonoma County’s cellphone network, a mainstay of modern life that underpins critical communications systems during emergencies, vow it will not go dark if PG&E shuts off electricity to prevent wildfires on dangerously hot, dry, windy days.
The nation’s largest wireless companies - AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint - said they could continue to power most or all of their cellphone towers until PG&E restores electricity following a planned outage, as long as they are able to access their towers.
The wireless companies intend to use a combination of batteries and generators to provide backup power to their towers, keeping the cellphone network operational during extended blackouts like those PG&E began implementing last year to prevent its equipment from sparking fires.
“Our network performance has not been affected by the recent planned power outages,” said Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato. “We have designed our network and support operations to be prepared for a number of potential situations, including power failures. In addition, we work closely with power companies during outages, and this situation is no different.”
PG&E’s plan to cut power to large transmission lines to prevent wildfires - developed after a series of deadly and destructive fires that state investigators have traced to the utility’s equipment - poses numerous concerns for local officials.
The potential loss of wireless communications systems topped a list of possible impacts presented to the Santa Rosa City Council last week during a briefing about the utility’s planned outage program.
Sustained cellphone communications are a central part of disaster planning, enabling citizens to stay in touch and authorities to broadcast important emergency information during crises such as wildfires, blackouts, floods and earthquakes.
The cellphone companies’ assurances come as state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, carries legislation that would require PG&E to notify telecommunications companies, first responders and hospitals about potential outages on a circuit-by-circuit basis to ensure they are prepared to react.
“There are medically fragile residents who are on oxygen and need electricity to survive,” McGuire said in a statement. “We have to know that first responders who will answer at their time of need get advanced warning when the power is being shut down.”
PG&E has previously said it will try to provide at least 48 hours’ warning to customers - including cell carriers - who may be affected by a planned power outage.
The vast network of copper wires long used by landline phones may be more resilient to power outages, but traditional telephone service is falling out of favor as a growing number of Americans cut the cord and rely on wireless smartphones as their primary phone.
Most 911 calls during contemporary emergencies, including wildfires, come from cellphones, and local agencies in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have increasingly adopted text notifications as a way of communicating critical information to residents.
In May, the California Public Utilities Commission’s Public Advocates Office urged state regulators to require cellphone carriers to provide backup power at cell sites and routers in high fire-threat areas, part of a series of recommendations to improve the stability of the state’s communications network.
The filing noted several concerns with the current cellphone network and its role in carrying critical communications during emergencies.
During the 2017 firestorm, 341 cell sites went offline, disrupting communications in large sections of Sonoma County. Last September, a test of the SoCoAlert network - a system used by local public safety agencies to send notifications to members of the public who have signed up to receive them - discovered that half of the alerts sent to about 290,000 phone numbers in the SoCoAlert database were not delivered to a person or answering machine.
“The Sonoma County Alert exercises establish that there is an urgent need to improve both the ability to provide critical emergency alert and warning information to the public, and to be able to receive emergency 9-1-1 calls and location information from the public during emergencies,” wrote Charlyn Hook, an attorney for the public advocate’s office.
PG&E is expanding its plans to shut down power during dangerous fire weather this year. For the first time, it will consider turning off large transmission lines that deliver electricity across California, expanding the scope of potential blackouts.
PG&E has said that all of its roughly 5.4 million customers could be affected, including people living outside state-identified fire zones.