PG&E blackouts knock landline telephones out of service in Sonoma County
A copper-wire landline has provided phone service to Patty Keiser’s home above the Sonoma Valley for at least five decades. The old-school phone occasionally acts up, especially when it rains, but it’s stood the test of time.
Keiser sometimes prefers the solid connection of her AT&T landline to the quirks of cellphone service at her home near Glen Ellen, particularly when she’s returning calls. Reliable phone service is essential for a real estate agent like Keiser and the old landline, she thought, was immune to power outages, a bonus magnified by PG&E’s recent widespread blackouts.
“I don’t know, I just like the landline, and I like the fact that if the power goes out, I’ll have a phone,” Keiser said. “That’s what I always thought.”
But Keiser’s landline died about 24 hours after PG&E cut electricity to her neighborhood last month, part of a massive power shutdown designed to prevent its equipment from sparking fires.
Keiser is not alone. Several Sonoma County residents contacted The Press Democrat to report their landlines, too, stopped working during the PG&E blackout. Some, like Keiser, had landlines from AT&T; others had telephone service through their internet provider, Comcast. All discovered they could not make or receive telephone calls during an unprecedented week of upheaval triggered by the largest wildfire and mass evacuation in Sonoma County history.
“It makes me want to get to the bottom of what it is and make them fix it,” Keiser said. “I don’t want to lose my landline.”
Nearly 455,000 customers across California lost their landline or internet telephone service during the peak of the shut-offs on Oct. 28, according to data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission. The agency did not break out data for individual telecommunications companies.
Landline network scrutiny
The disruptions to landline telephone service during the PG&E blackouts are only the latest problem to beset the state’s telecommunications industry.
A quarter of the cellular towers in Sonoma County stopped working Oct. 28, according to FCC data. The disruptions exposed significant gaps in contingency plans devised by cellphone companies to maintain service using backup power during PG&E shut-offs. Citing Press Democrat reporting, the FCC demanded more information in September from cellphone companies on their plans to keep networks operating during blackouts.
Now, the performance of California’s landline networks is coming under scrutiny from customers and regulators. Two major California landline providers have been cited by state regulators in recent years for failing to provide quality telephone service. Both agreed to spend millions of dollars upgrading their aging networks to avoid massive fines.
Landlines long have been thought of as a blackout-resistant communications tool. They use relatively little electricity and draw power from phone companies’ central offices, which are required by the FCC to maintain sturdy backup power systems to preserve the 911 system.
But despite backup power rules, landlines are susceptible to failure during prolonged blackouts by PG&E, which shut off electricity four times in three weeks in Sonoma County during dry, windy conditions that can cause wildfires to explode and spread rapidly.
Phone companies that serve emergency dispatch centers must have up to 72 hours of backup power for crucial equipment, while less critical sites are required to have at least 24 hours of backup power.