Telecoms Ripped for Service Outages During California Blackouts

(CN) – Moke Simon faced the California Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday afternoon, though he wanted desperately to be back home in Lake County, California.

His children were home from school yet again because voluntary power outages by Pacific Gas & Electric had forced school closures for at least the third time in the past two months.

“We’re doing a disservice to the people trying to educate the next generation of California leaders,” said Simon, who coaches the high school football team in his hometown of Middletown.

Simon, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, stood at the lectern directly stage right to a phalanx of corporate officials donned in trim suits while representing a panoply of telecommunications companies operating in California.

The CPUC, which regulates public utilities and telecom providers, had demanded the corporate representatives appear to explain the extent of cellphone coverage failures during the widespread power outages that PG&E undertook beginning Oct. 9 and executed sporadically throughout the next four weeks.

At one point, as many as 3 million California residents were without power.

While AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile were not directly responsible for the power outages, several residents have since complained that they lost cell coverage during the power outages, meaning they were cut off from valuable information and unable to call 911.

Simon, the District 1 supervisor from Lake County, said the county’s entire sewer network and connected cellular lost functionality during the October power outage, causing a large uncontained sewage spill.

“There is frustration about a lack of coordination, communication and transparency from the telecommunication companies,” said Marybel Batjer, president of the CPUC, during Wednesday’s hearing.

The hearing was held to formally examine whether new rules and regulations will have to be created to ensure the telecommunications companies have the backup power required to operate their networks during times of natural disaster.

“This is about more than just a poor response to the power shut-offs,” said Liane Randolph, a CPUC commissioner. “We need to be sure we have a functional infrastructure in the event of an earthquake of similar instances.”

The commissioners were also upset about a lack of cooperation from the telecom companies, particularly as it relates to the public disclosure of coverage data.

A follow-up report to the Federal Communications Commission showed that 57% of cellphone sites in Marin County were out during the power outage that began Oct. 9. But representatives from the California Office of Emergency Services said the agency needed that type of data in real time.

“The outage reporting systems have several gaps,” said Paul Traxel with Cal OES. “The numbers were inconsistent and the number of outages reported by each company varied significantly.”

Representatives from Verizon and T-Mobile promised to make their cell site outage percentages publicly available during future power outages and similar disasters, to give first responders and emergency service planners a more accurate picture of where residents may be languishing without communication.

AT&T and Sprint stopped short of committing to public disclosures, saying they would have to consult internally before making public commitments.

Batjer expressed displeasure at the lack of commitments.

“It’s important, given the seriousness of events, that a decision is made,” she said.

Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Wilson said up to the minute information about cellphone coverage is critical to emergency responders.

“Loss of networks is a matter of life and death to the people of California during an emergency,” he said.

Part of the problem, according to David Gallagher, an engineer with T-Mobile, is that downed cellphone sites are a poor proxy for the quality of coverage a given customer is receiving.

“Just because a cell site is off does not necessarily mean a customer does not have coverage,” he said.

But officials from Cal OES said Gallagher’s description underscores the problem in that officials have no viable means to gather real-time data about who lacks coverage.

Randolph said the industry also must come up with a bottom-line standard about the type of coverage required for a person to access a website with up to the minute information about natural disasters.

“To go onto a utility website to see the status of an event is really now the minimum you need from an emergency network,” she said.

Along with public data provisions, the CPUC appears poised to require 72 hours of back-up power at most, if not all, cell sites.

The telecom requested technical workshops be performed before rulemaking was begun in earnest, saying each cell site functioned differently within the overall network, meaning a one-size-fits-all approach could be clumsy and unnecessarily burdensome.

It wasn’t only the telecom providers who were present on Wednesday. More traditional landline phone providers like Comcast, Frontier, Cox Communications and Charter were also on hand.

Given the focus of Wednesday’s testimony, however, it’s clear that in 2019 most Californians need an operable cellular network to even so much as place a 911 emergency call.

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