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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.”

“Comcast understands this disruption to services is frustrating and has a major impact on people’s lives and businesses,” the statement said. “The safety of our communities and employees is our utmost priority and Comcast takes care during PSPS events to ensure public safety.”

About 1,500 residential customers and 100 business customers were “impacted” in the North Bay during the latest outage this week, Comcast said.

AT&T said backup measures ensured none of its cell sites lost service in Sonoma County during the shut-off. The company is investing $340 million to add emergency power to more cell sites throughout California, which includes installing 1,000 more generators, said AT&T spokesman Ben Golombek.

“While our network was originally designed to rely on the public power grid, as the recent fire seasons have demonstrated, we can no longer assume that power will be reliable during these events,” he said. “We have made significant investment in response.”

Ahead of last year’s string of six PG&E power outages affecting the North Bay, cellphone companies told The Press Democrat they had a variety of back-up strategies in place.

But last fall, as the PG&E-sparked Kincade fire raged in northeastern Sonoma County, tens of thousands of residents and more than a million people in Northern California found themselves without cell and internet service for extended periods of time. In Sonoma County, about a quarter of cell sites were down at the peak of the service disruption.

The Federal Communications Commission responded by asking major cell carriers for more detail about their disaster plans, and the carriers submitted filings outlining their contingency efforts with the FCC about a year ago. The carriers do not appear to have been hit nearly as hard during this week’s outage.

But to this day, wireless providers continue to fight efforts at the state level that could bolster cellphone service during widescale disasters.

State Sen. Mike McGuire’s bill to require telecommunications companies provide 72 hours of backup power for cell towers won Senate approval on a 33-3 vote, but it died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“My hunch is that the telecom industry made this the top priority for their kill list,” the Healdsburg Democrat said.

“This commonsense bill is needed now more than ever,” McGuire said, with California in the midst of “the worst wildfire period in history.” He said he planned to reintroduce the legislation next year.

One major carrier in the coalition of companies fighting the state mandate is AT&T Services, a current lobbying client of Platinum Advisors, whose founder and CEO, Sonoma developer Darius Anderson, is managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, owner of The Press Democrat.

In the wake of the this week’s shut-offs, 20 members of Congress from California came together to issue a scathing statement about the carriers’ fight against the state’s 72-hour backup power mandate. The pushback outraged lawmakers, who noted the nearly 30 wildfires that are ravaging the state.

“These safeguards were put in place to help Californians stay connected during wildfires and other emergencies,” said the statement, signed by Sonoma County’s two congressmen, Reps. Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman. “Challenging them is irresponsible and in doing so the carriers are turning their backs on Californians.”

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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