Communication outages once again follow power shut-offs in Sonoma County
Ian Sewell wants some accountability.
Sewell, a software manager who lives in Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk neighborhood, can’t work without internet access. So when PG&E shut off the power to tens of thousands of people in Sonoma County this week, citing forecasts calling for dangerous fire weather, Sewell was sidelined from his job.
He has a solar back-up system and didn’t lose his lights. But for 36 hours, his home did lose access to the internet, which comes to him and many others in the region through Comcast.
“Basically, I took a sick day,” Sewell said, noting that his attempts at a workaround ― using phone hotspots and even WiFi from a neighbor ― were temporarily effective but ultimately spotty. “I couldn’t work.”
He appreciated Comcast’s response to his post-outage inquiry, which was to offer him a credit for a month’s worth of service, but he still wants telecommunications companies to be held to a higher standard when it comes to backup power amid planned outages. Internet and cellphone service can be crucial lifeline, especially during emergencies, and most calls to 911 dispatch come in from mobile phones.
"It is a super important way for people to get information about what is going on,“ Sewell said of internet access.
Regulators and lawmakers, too, have been pushing telecommunication providers for clearer and stronger disaster plans. A California bill that would have required companies to provide backup power for cell towers amid outages died in the Legislature this year.
And a mandate handed down in July by the California Public Utilities Commission spells out a new 72-hour standard for backup power at cell towers in emergency situations, such as the PG&E shutoffs.
But telecommunication companies, who enjoy one of the most influential and well-funded lobbying arsenals in Sacramento, have pushed back against those moves, arguing that the state had overstepped its authority. Instead, they want California to allow voluntary compliance, as favored by federal regulators.
In a volley against the CPUC regulations, a coalition of wireless companies emphasized the steps carriers have already taken, including backup power at “virtually all critical coverage cell sites,” according to an August letter to the commission, and using temporary wireless facilities to boost signals in areas where permanent towers are damaged or overburdened.
“Indeed, California’s wireless carriers have voluntarily taken steps that go above and beyond the provision of wireless service,” carriers said in the request, put forward by representatives of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.
But local residents like Sewell have yet to see those safeguards kick in to assure their communications don’t go down amid power shut-offs. And outages like this week are even a bigger problem amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven a steep rise in working and learning from home, much of it reliant on an internet connection.
“The internet companies aren't powering up whatever it is they need to power up to allow service for those of us with generators, or battery back-ups, etc,” said Kim Corcoran, a Rincon Valley resident who works from home and who has a son trying to attend class remotely. “It’s inconsistent, too.”
Major telecommunications companies operating in the North Bay rely on power from PG&E to operate the equipment that connects residents to internet, cable and cell phone service. Without that power, telecommunications sites affected by PG&E’s planned outages to curb fire risk can go dark, affecting not just those inside an outage zone but often a much wider area.
PG&E has has pledged to limit the scope and duration of such outages this year, and has "met and/or communicated several times” with telecommunications service providers and other agencies since last year’s shutoffs to understand how it can improve its communication related to the outages, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said. One step the utility took was creating a data portal to privately share information about outages with telecommunications companies, as well as cities, counties, hospitals and other agencies, Contreras said.
“We want to be sure they know we may need to turn off power for safety when extreme weather conditions are forecasted so they can take steps to prepare, such as securing backup generation,” Contreras said.
Comcast’s position has been that it’s technologically unrealistic to provide back-up power to all of its equipment that could potentially be affected by PG&E’s outages.
That position hasn’t changed. A Comcast spokesperson Thursday pointed to a recent statement on the internet service provider’s website, which notes that Comcast’s services “require commercial power to operate” and “may stop functioning within hours after the commercial power is shut off.”