Mobile and internet service falters as PG&E shutdown in Northern California exposes network holes

The planned power shutdown disrupted telecom service for some of the nation's largest providers, exposing service problems for a network increasingly used to communicate during emergencies.|

Joann Keyston said she tried to prepare as best she could for PG&E’s planned power shut-off this week. She made sure to charge her cellphone, bought backup batteries, and plugged in her iPad while the lights were still on.

But when PG&E cut power to her Oakmont neighborhood in east Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Keyston, 84, found her landline was dead. When she tried to use her cellphone, the service and reception were spotty, leaving her without an easy way to reach the outside world and know what was happening amid the extreme fire weather warning covering the North Bay.

Her last resort was to drive about 4 miles from her home to a Safeway shopping center in Rincon Valley to get cell service.

“I had to come out in my car and call my son,” Keyston said. “It’s just a matter of checking in.”

She didn’t sleep well Tuesday night, as PG&E was preparing to shut off power to as many as 800,000 accounts across Northern and Central California, and as the outage dragged on she felt like the measures in place to prop up the region’s communications network had let residents down.

“That was the disappointing thing,” she said. “We did everything we were supposed to do but the system doesn’t.”

Keyston was not alone.

The power shutdown disrupted telecommunications service for some of the nation’s largest providers, including Comcast, and top U.S. wireless carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. Phone and internet outages and spotty service were reported in Santa Rosa, across Sonoma County and the Bay Area.

An AT&T spokeswoman acknowledged Wednesday the PG&E shutdown amounted to a “difficult time” for cellphone users in more than 750 ZIP codes across the state. The company responded by offering “unlimited talk, text and data” to affected customers through Sunday.

The problems exposed holes in a wireless and internet network increasingly used to communicate in emergencies.

The disruptions even extended to Sonoma County’s emergency operations center, a command post used by officials to direct the local government response to the power shut-off. The facility, like much of the region, uses Comcast as its broadband provider.

Starting Wednesday, the operations center had trouble with its wireless internet, said Melissa Valle, a county spokeswoman. She said her understanding was that Comcast had a problem with one of its facilities, leading to service problems.

The WiFi problem stalled work for those with laptops in the center, she said. By Thursday, the issues had been resolved.

A Livermore-based Comcast spokeswoman, Joan Hammel, said tens of thousands of local customers likely lost service. She could not say exactly how many of the cable company’s 49,100 Santa Rosa accounts were affected or when service might be fully restored.

“It’s a question for PG&E more so than us,” she said.

Throughout the state, Comcast equipment was knocked offline by PG&E’s shutdown, Hammel said. The cable company was “only using generators in very discrete and specific cases where there’s a demonstrated need,” such as a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said.

Even people whose lights stayed on may have lost access depending on where their Comcast signal originated, Hammel said.

“We’re just seeing a lot of customers confused and frustrated and not really processing that, which is fair,” she said.

Comcast customer Todd Bishop, who owns Dibble’s Auto Center on Santa Rosa Avenue, said he was without internet access at both his shop and his Hidden Valley home.

His shop kept power but lost internet access, a crucial tool for his business.

“I can’t even give customers back their cars right now,” Bishop said. “I can fix them, but by law, I have to give them an invoice, and it’s all cloud-based.”

Cell carriers in recent weeks have assured federal officials they would be able to sustain service during a widespread power outage with generators and batteries, as long as they had access to their towers.

But reports of cell service problems started to crop up early Wednesday, hours after the outage was in effect.

T-Mobile spokesman Joel Rushing said “only a small number of sites” were down in some of the areas affected by the power shut-off.

Sprint also acknowledged that “the power shut-offs may impact cell sites in the area.”

Verizon said its network was able to withstand the blackout, saying it was “prepared to keep customers connected during any disruption in commercial power.”

Sonoma County officials sought Thursday to give residents without phone service a range of options to place calls in cases of emergencies. “Most fire stations in the county have an emergency phone on the outside of the building that connects you with dispatch,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. That includes call boxes working 24 hours at six Sonoma Valley fire stations, including those sites in Glen Ellen and Kenwood.

PG&E’s website woes this week compounded the communication problems. At the start of the shutdown, it directed customers seeking information about the outage to a lookup site, but amid the influx of traffic, that site slowed and crashed.

Access to a new site rolled out later this week for the outages was also problematic.

Laurie Giammona, PG&E’s chief customer officer, called Thursday “a difficult day” for the utility and the millions of Californians who depend on it for electricity. She said the company had failed “customers with our inability to communicate.”

Bishop, a Verizon subscriber, said he hadn’t had any problems with cell service. But he worried that people like his mother, a Bennett Valley resident with health issues, wouldn’t be able to call for help if their only option was an internet-based landline that loses service during a power outage.

“How many elderly people in our community rely on Comcast for their phone services?” he said. “If they can’t call 911, that’s a problem.”

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