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Bill would require feds to disclose more data when cellphones, landlines, internet fail

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Four California Democrats in Congress want to require federal officials to increase the information they disclose on communications network outages like those that arose when PG&E imposed several blackouts in late 2019.

A bill sponsored by Congresswoman Doris Matsui of Sacramento and co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman of San Rafael, Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto would require more from the Federal Communications Commission after the agency activates a key tool for communications providers to report outages during times of crisis. The FCC switched on that system in late October in response to PG&E’s string of intentional blackouts aimed at preventing wildfires amid the onset of the Kincade fire, which ignited around the same time and place as a PG&E transmission system’s malfunction in northern Sonoma County.

Communications providers told the FCC and The Press Democrat they had plans to provide backup power through a combination of batteries and generators. Despite those assurances, communications infrastructure across the North Bay lost power during the extended PG&E shut-offs, interrupting service for thousands of internet, cellphone and landline users.

The failure of these networks — technological advances now so widespread as to be mundane — raised fears about whether residents would be able to call 911 during an emergency. Addressing those fears is a key aim of the bill cosponsored by Thompson and Huffman, one shared with lawmakers in Sacramento angling for stronger backup power requirements.

“People shouldn’t have to worry about being able to reach out for help or contact loved ones during an emergency,” Huffman said in a statement. “The Federal Communications Commission needs to ensure that it is systematically addressing the danger of communications outages during a disaster, and this new legislation will give them the direction they need to respond to future outages and make our communities more resilient.”

A bill to increase the amount of data could be a boon to local emergency management officials such as Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director, who called the legislation “a positive first step.”

“It sounds like this bill is going to ensure that we collect sufficient data to really understand this problem, basically really try to move to a more objective discussion rather than the more anecdotal information like we received last year,” Godley said. He emphasized the importance of being able to call out for emergency services: “If you can’t connect to 911, you might as well be living on an island off the coast of California.”

HR 5918, which Matsui introduced earlier this month, would require the FCC to compile information on the scope of cell and internet service outages and issue recommendations on how to improve communications systems. The bill also would require the FCC to hold at least one public hearing in an affected community, and its sponsors hope it will improve local emergency dispatchers’ understanding of communications outages.

“When people call 911 during a disaster like our recent wildfires, they want to know they can get help quickly and efficiently,” Thompson said in a statement. “This bill will help local and state governments better respond and prepare for emergencies and I will do everything I can to move it forward and get signed into law so our community is better able to respond in case of a disaster.”

The new reports the FCC would be required to produce would come on top of existing, aggregated data the commission provides during the activation of its Disaster Information Reporting System. Last fall, for example, daily releases of outage data showed how more cell sites lost power as PG&E’s blackouts ticked on — at one point, a quarter of the cell sites in Sonoma and Lake counties were out of service, mostly because of power loss as battery backups failed, and nearly 60% of Marin County cell sites went down.

Separately, in the state Legislature, Sen. Mike McGuire is authoring a bill with Sen. Steve Glazer, Senate Bill 431, that would require at least three full days of backup power rigs for cell towers and cable technology in high fire threat areas. The bill, which has yet to pass the state Assembly, would give state officials until July 2021 to implement stronger standards.

“Telecom representatives assured us this worst-case scenario, hundreds of cell towers going down due to the lack of power, wouldn’t happen. It’s simply not true,” McGuire said in a statement. “It’s time California steps up and mandates cell towers have backup power.”

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

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