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Cellphone companies reveal plans to maintain wireless service during PG&E power outages

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Preparing For Planned Outages

Make sure PG&E has your current contact information by going to www.pge.com or calling 1-800-743-5000.

Get local emergency alerts: Go to SoCoAlert.com or call 866-939-0911, press "0" at the menu and ask the operator for assistance in registering.

Learn how to prepare for power outages by going to www.ready.gov/power-outages.

For a list of resources to help in planning for disaster go to pressdemocrat.com/prepare.

The companies that operate Sonoma County’s cellphone network, a mainstay of modern life that underpins critical communications systems during emergencies, vow it will not go dark if PG&E shuts off electricity to prevent wildfires on dangerously hot, dry, windy days.

The nation’s largest wireless companies — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — said they could continue to power most or all of their cellphone towers until PG&E restores electricity following a planned outage, as long as they are able to access their towers.

The wireless companies intend to use a combination of batteries and generators to provide backup power to their towers, keeping the cellphone network operational during extended blackouts like those PG&E began implementing last year to prevent its equipment from sparking fires.

“Our network performance has not been affected by the recent planned power outages,” said Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato. “We have designed our network and support operations to be prepared for a number of potential situations, including power failures. In addition, we work closely with power companies during outages, and this situation is no different.”

PG&E’s plan to cut power to large transmission lines to prevent wildfires — developed after a series of deadly and destructive fires that state investigators have traced to the utility’s equipment — poses numerous concerns for local officials.

The potential loss of wireless communications systems topped a list of possible impacts presented to the Santa Rosa City Council last week during a briefing about the utility’s planned outage program.

Sustained cellphone communications are a central part of disaster planning, enabling citizens to stay in touch and authorities to broadcast important emergency information during crises such as wildfires, blackouts, floods and earthquakes.

The cellphone companies’ assurances come as state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, carries legislation that would require PG&E to notify telecommunications companies, first responders and hospitals about potential outages on a circuit-by-circuit basis to ensure they are prepared to react.

“There are medically fragile residents who are on oxygen and need electricity to survive,” McGuire said in a statement. “We have to know that first responders who will answer at their time of need get advanced warning when the power is being shut down.”

PG&E has previously said it will try to provide at least 48 hours’ warning to customers — including cell carriers — who may be affected by a planned power outage.

The vast network of copper wires long used by landline phones may be more resilient to power outages, but traditional telephone service is falling out of favor as a growing number of Americans cut the cord and rely on wireless smartphones as their primary phone.

Most 911 calls during contemporary emergencies, including wildfires, come from cellphones, and local agencies in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have increasingly adopted text notifications as a way of communicating critical information to residents.

In May, the California Public Utilities Commission’s Public Advocates Office urged state regulators to require cellphone carriers to provide backup power at cell sites and routers in high fire-threat areas, part of a series of recommendations to improve the stability of the state’s communications network.

The filing noted several concerns with the current cellphone network and its role in carrying critical communications during emergencies.

During the 2017 firestorm, 341 cell sites went offline, disrupting communications in large sections of Sonoma County. Last September, a test of the SoCoAlert network — a system used by local public safety agencies to send notifications to members of the public who have signed up to receive them — discovered that half of the alerts sent to about 290,000 phone numbers in the SoCoAlert database were not delivered to a person or answering machine.

Preparing For Planned Outages

Make sure PG&E has your current contact information by going to www.pge.com or calling 1-800-743-5000.

Get local emergency alerts: Go to SoCoAlert.com or call 866-939-0911, press "0" at the menu and ask the operator for assistance in registering.

Learn how to prepare for power outages by going to www.ready.gov/power-outages.

For a list of resources to help in planning for disaster go to pressdemocrat.com/prepare.

“The Sonoma County Alert exercises establish that there is an urgent need to improve both the ability to provide critical emergency alert and warning information to the public, and to be able to receive emergency 9-1-1 calls and location information from the public during emergencies,” wrote Charlyn Hook, an attorney for the public advocate’s office.

PG&E is expanding its plans to shut down power during dangerous fire weather this year. For the first time, it will consider turning off large transmission lines that deliver electricity across California, expanding the scope of potential blackouts.

PG&E has said that all of its roughly 5.4 million customers could be affected, including people living outside state-identified fire zones.

PG&E crews will need to inspect lines before they can be re-energized. The utility is warning people to prepare to be powerless for at least two days, and Santa Rosa officials have projected outages of up to a week.

Wireless carriers say their backup power solutions could keep cell towers in operation during prolonged blackouts — as long as conditions permit crews to reach their equipment and refuel generators.

“Before, during and after a major weather event and as long as the area is safe to deploy our crews to the area, Sprint will continue to actively manage the fuel levels at sites, especially if there is a loss of commercial power,” said Sprint spokeswoman Roni Singleton. “This includes transporting additional portable generators to staging areas so that they can be quickly deployed, topping off fixed and portable emergency backup generators for our cell sites, and pre-staging equipment, people and other resources to help ensure we can provide wireless services for our customers.”

AT&T also confirmed it has a plan to keep its cellphone network from crashing during a power outage and is working with PG&E to improve notifications before the electricity is turned off.

“All of our macro cell sites have a backup power solution — either battery or generator or a combination of the two,” said AT&T spokesman Ben Golombek.

“These solutions last between 4 to 72 hours, depending on the type of facility, and can be extended by adding additional generators, which we do as needed and in the case of public safety power shutoffs we plan for this in advance as long as the power provider gives us adequate advance notice. We have teams monitoring power needs 24/7 and can move generators around based on power needs.”

A T-Mobile spokesman said all of the carrier’s network traffic hubs and critical cell sites had permanent generators and said T-Mobile also had “a fleet of temporary generators that our emergency response teams deploy where needed.”

Santa Rosa recently voiced concerns to FCC staff about the potential for large numbers of cell towers being impacted during a wildfire, though not specifically due to a planned power outage by PG&E, said Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal.

The meeting provided Santa Rosa with a unique opportunity to speak directly with federal authorities without mediation, and it could be a jumping-off point for future input from the city to federal officials on additional rules and regulation, Lowenthal said.

“It really was a good opportunity to just talk, to let them hear our local concerns,” he said.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on specific matters but noted that the major carriers all had committed to a voluntary industry pact to promote sturdy wireless communications during disasters. The FCC is currently re-evaluating this framework.

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