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PG&E blackout knocks out one-quarter of Sonoma County cellphone towers

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A quarter of the cellphone towers in Sonoma County lost power Monday, reducing the reach of a critical communications tool during a rapidly evolving crisis triggered by the Kincade fire, a massive PG&E blackout and the largest evacuation in county history.

The degradation of the region’s cellphone network exposed gaps in carriers’ plans to preserve service during PG&E shut-offs and triggered calls for legislation requiring carriers to provide backup power at cell sites.

More than 100 of the approximately 430 cell sites in Sonoma County were knocked out of service because of a loss of power Monday, the peak day for cellphone network outages during the 11-day period since the Kincade fire erupted on Oct. 23, according to Federal Communications Commission records.

The problem was worse in Marin County, where nearly 60% of cell sites were down, while outages also were elevated in Lake (25.5%) and Napa (19.2%) counties, according to FCC records. Almost all were caused by loss of power.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes west county evacuees allowed to return Monday, said many people didn’t come home at first on account of PG&E’s power and gas shut-offs — and spotty cellphone service, which hampers the ability of local officials to warn residents during a wildfire and other emergencies.

“That’s very scary,” she said. “We need all of the forms of communication. If telecom companies aren’t stepping up, then we’re in trouble.”

Cellphones have replaced landline telephones in nearly 60% of households, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, evolving from a convenience to an essential part of contemporary life. The cellphone network is used to deliver emergency alerts, evacuation notices, notifications of PG&E power outages and other crucial information during a disaster. It also serves as a vital technology used by the public to call for help, locate family members and friends, identify routes to safety, access news and communicate with others.

State bill proposed on towers

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat whose district was heavily affected by the Kincade fire, the shut-offs and the evacuations, has proposed legislation that would require cell towers in California’s high-risk fire areas to have backup power systems capable of surviving at least 48 hours. Cell sites outside those districts, predominantly less populated rural areas, would not be subject to the requirements.

His bill, SB 431, would create a pathway to warn customers when these power systems run low on power. The measure is important, McGuire said, because “our phones have become our life.”

“It’s how we communicate with the rest of the world, and it’s also how we receive our emergency alerts during times of disaster,” he said. “This bill isn’t about checking your latest Facebook status. This bill is literally about life and death.”

A spokesman for Sonoma County’s emergency operations center acknowledged that cell site outages constrain its ability to deliver wireless alerts but said the scope, duration and impact were still being researched.

The FCC outage figures were produced by a disaster data reporting system activated Oct. 24 before two PG&E power cuts to prevent its equipment from starting wildfires. The FCC relied on several wireless companies that participate in a voluntary industry agreement, including major providers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Data are not broken down by carrier, as the FCC considers that information confidential.

Cell site outages because of loss of power in Sonoma County jumped to 67 last Sunday and peaked at 109 Monday. On Tuesday, the number of cell sites without power dipped to 91, and on Wednesday, 68. There were still 24 sites out on Thursday and by Friday, after PG&E made strides to restore electricity service across the county, only 10 sites remained without power.

Major cellphone companies, who insisted last summer they were well prepared for prolonged PG&E power outages, now face hard questions about their ability to maintain communications during blackouts and public emergencies.

In August, the nation’s largest wireless companies told The Press Democrat they could continue to power most or all of their cellphone towers with generators and batteries during a planned PG&E outage as long as their crews could access those sites. That reporting helped prompt the FCC in September to ask cell companies for more details about their contingency plans, which they provided later that month.

But despite the plans and pledges to work to ensure continued service, networks faltered in PG&E’s first preemptive blackout in October. Those problems continued last week during the most recent wave of PG&E power shutdowns.

Carriers’ struggled in outage

In statements Tuesday, after the cellphone outage peaked, cell carriers generally emphasized the relative strength of their networks. They also acknowledged they couldn’t keep all of their sites powered up, despite efforts to prepare with generators and batteries.

AT&T acknowledged the toll to its infrastructure from prolonged blackouts and fire. Before last weekend’s blackout, AT&T said it recharged batteries and staged more generators and “backup equipment” at its cell sites.

“As a result of extended outage times and additional affected areas, as well as fire damage to some of our facilities, service for some customers may be affected,” AT&T said. It pledged to “continue to move quickly” to keep customers connected “and will continue to work to deploy generators and restore service as conditions allow.”

Sprint reported a “relatively minimal impact” from intentional blackouts and major wildfires in California.

“A number of sites may experience disruptions; however, our teams are refueling generators that are in use as quickly as possible, and thanks to extensive roaming agreements in the area, our customers will roam on compatible partner networks where available,” Sprint said.

Verizon said more than 90% of its cell sites in Sonoma and Marin counties remained operational during PG&E’s outage, while acknowledging that planned blackouts exposed “discrete areas of our network that will experience service disruption or degradation.”

T-Mobile said it had sent generators to more than 260 sites by Tuesday, was deploying a fleet of wireless cells on trucks and was “working on getting 400 more generators out there as conditions allow.” It was unclear how many of these sites were in Sonoma County, though a spokesman said “less than 7% of T-Mobile sites are off the air” in the greater Bay Area.

The cell companies did step up with various attempts to mitigate their site failures. An AT&T representative said the company was donating $100,000 to the California Fire Foundation and would issue credits and waive charges for customers affected by the Kincade fire. Verizon donated another $100,000 to the same foundation and said it provided communications equipment to shelter operators. A T-Mobile spokesman said the company provided mobile trucks and volunteers at evacuation centers and sponsored a food truck to feed attendees at a Santa Rosa City Schools Halloween event. A Sprint website said customers affected by the Kincade fire also would receive unlimited talk, text and data at no additional cost for a week.

McGuire said telecommunications representatives gave assurances in June that they’d be able to keep their systems up and running. The FCC’s outage figures, he said, show “glaring discrepancies between what telecom executives are saying, and what the truth is.”

Hopkins noted the FCC had regulatory power over telecommunications companies and raised the prospect of advocating in Washington, D.C., for backup power requirements.

An FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, cited the conjunction of California wildfires and lack of phone service in a Friday morning Twitter post that said it was “time for the @FCC to start investigating.”

“When it does it needs to reckon with how rolling back regulations and not requiring backup power have made it harder to reach out in disaster,” said Rosenworcel, an Obama nominee who has stayed on the commission under the Trump administration.

In a letter Thursday, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat running for president, called on top telecommunications officials to report outages not only to the FCC but to the state Office of Emergency Services.

“While companies like PG&E must be held responsible for years of neglected maintenance, it is incumbent on cell service providers to mitigate impacts to communications equipment during power shutoffs,” Harris wrote.

PG&E to file outage reports

PG&E will soon file reports about its most recent outages with state regulators who oversee investor-owned utilities.

In its post-mortem for October’s first blackout, PG&E told the CPUC it would include cell service availability as part of a broader effort to address local governments’ preferences for where the utility sets up community resource centers during outages. The utility counted eight telecom companies it directly communicated with during the Oct. 9 outage.

A PG&E spokeswoman declined comment on McGuire’s bill when asked whether the San Francisco-based utility believed telecommunications companies should be required to provide backup power to cell sites, given the potential for future planned outages.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off power affects first responders and the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Robison. “We will continue to work with telecommunications companies and other critical service providers as we work to keep customers and communities safe.”

Staff Writer Yousef Baig 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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