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PG&E blackouts knock landline telephones out of service in Sonoma County

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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.

Legacy system in disrepair

There are no such FCC requirements for the smaller phone “cabinets” that extend landline service beyond central offices, data centers serving home phones that connect calls through the internet, or cell towers, said Alexis Kwasinski, a University of Pittsburgh professor specializing in critical infrastructure systems.

Landline cabinets and cellphone towers can remain operational during outages of eight hours or less by drawing power from batteries, and telecommunications companies can use generators to keep equipment humming during longer blackouts, Kwasinski said. But adding generators to all sites can pose new risks by introducing fuel into areas that may be susceptible to wildfires or earthquakes, he said. Space limitations can also make it difficult to install backup power solutions, he said.

“It’s easy to solve, in the sense that we know that it can be done,” Kwasinski said. “But the problem is all the constraints you have.”

The two major legacy landline providers in California — AT&T California and Frontier Communications — have equipped most of their central offices with backup battery systems and diesel generators that, depending on call volume, can keep systems running for at least 72 hours or more, according to a 44-page summary of a roughly 600-page report commissioned by the state Public Utilities Commission; the full report has yet to be released.

But as consumers are increasingly ditching their landlines and relying solely on cellphones, maintenance of copper wire networks has fallen by the wayside.

Both AT&T and Frontier have failed to properly maintain their landline networks, according to the summary of the PUC report, which examined service from 2010 to 2017. It called for higher fines when providers fail to provide quality service.

“AT&T had the financial resources to maintain and upgrade its landline network in California, but has yet to do so,” the summary noted. And though Frontier, which acquired Verizon’s California landline operations in 2016, demonstrated “a strong interest in pursuing such upgrades,” the company “lacks the financial capacity to make the necessary investments.”

Michael Picker, who was president of the California Public Utilities Commission until his recent retirement, said the findings made it clear that telecommunications companies have not been investing in maintaining and upgrading networks in rural, sparsely populated areas of the state.

“But that’s where we’ve seen some of the worst wildfire catastrophes that demand durable and resilient communications infrastructure for warning people, for evacuations and recovery,” Picker said in a PUC newsletter touting the study in August. “Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.”

AT&T: ‘Dynamic situation’

The PUC has allowed both AT&T and Frontier to avoid fines for poor service in exchange for commitments to spend millions on improving their infrastructure.

AT&T, which settled by agreeing to spend $11.8 million for 2017 and 2018 in lieu of fines, criticized the summary of the study as “biased” and “unsubstantiated” in a statement, noting that it had not yet seen the full report.

Asked about the scope of impact to its landline customers, AT&T said it would work to improve service for landline customers after any “large-scale event.”

“This was a very dynamic situation and we worked around the clock to serve our customers,” AT&T said in the statement. “For instance, we utilized backup power solutions throughout our network and deployed generators to support our wired network as well.”

Instead of paying a fine, Frontier will invest more than $4 million “in infrastructure enhancements that can expand service to Californians, particularly in unserved and underserved areas,” the company said in a statement.

The PG&E outages caused “relatively minor service interruptions,” Frontier said, though it acknowledged that “multiday power outages such as the ones that have impacted Northern California will likely result in service disruptions to some customers.”

“Frontier’s office facilities are equipped with emergency backup power systems, including generators that automatically start during a commercial power outage,” Frontier said. “Our remote facilities also have battery backup, but no backup system, regardless of the energy source, is designed to last indefinitely.”

Consumer shift poses risks

Even though cellphones have replaced landline telephones in nearly 60% of households, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, landlines remain a more reliable means of communication, said Louise Comfort, former director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh.

In addition to having stronger backup power requirements, copper-wire connections don’t face the same problems that can disrupt wireless connections during wildfires, including winds, smoke, embers and even fleeing birds that clutter the air, Comfort said.

“Lots of people are making choices about what kinds of communication they want to use, and a lot of people are moving away from landlines and toward cellphones, but they don’t really realize what the risk is and how vulnerable sometimes these cell towers are, and their connections,” said Comfort, who now lives in Oakland. She, too, lost phone and internet service when PG&E cut her power for three days last month.

PG&E acknowledged its preventative power shutdowns affect the state’s communications network, issuing a statement that mirrored its response last week to questions posed by The Press Democrat about the impact of blackouts on cellphone towers.

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

The blackouts also are vexing for internet companies that provide phone service over their networks, which are more dependent on commercial power than traditional landlines. As a result, customers of companies like Comcast may have found themselves without phone and internet access, even if their homes still had electricity.

Comcast used generators to provide backup power where it was safe to do so, said Joan Hammel, a company spokeswoman. The cable TV and internet company has never before needed a strategy to deal with blackouts of this magnitude, she said.

“I don’t see an answer that we could provide at this time that would be satisfactory to anyone,” she said. “The situation we’re experiencing is unprecedented in its scope and scale. It’s a new paradigm.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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