State Pushes Cell Providers to Improve Coverage After Power Shutoffs

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Jeff Luong, vice president of the Radio Access Network Construction for AT&T, spoke at a CPUC public hearing on Nov. 20, 2019, on poor or disrupted cell service during wildfires and other power shutoffs. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Some of the nation’s largest telecom providers on Wednesday committed to publicly share data on cell tower outages after coming under criticism for poor — or disrupted — service during some of the October PG&E power shutoffs and a fast-moving wildfire in Sonoma County.

The commitments came during a San Francisco meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on the cell tower troubles, which peaked on Monday, Oct. 28, with 57% of towers out in Marin County, 27% in Sonoma and 19% in Napa County — mostly due to power issues, according to voluntary information submitted by telecom providers to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The disruptions in service left people across Northern California in the dark, both literally and figuratively: Residents were unable to make or receive calls, get emergency alerts from authorities or access online information about the widespread back-to-back power shutoffs, which lasted several days, or the Kincade Fire.

They also revealed a problem that officials have been worrying about for years: The lack of backup power for cell towers — and no federal or state requirement that telecom companies provide it.

During the PG&E shutoffs, “failures in communications networks occurred on a significant scale,” said CPUC President Marybel Batjer, noting that at one point all of Humboldt County was without landlines, cell service or VoIP (voice over internet protocol).

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“Lack of communication service is not a mere inconvenience, it’s endangering of lives," she said. “These outages were unexpected, given the previous assurances the communication companies provided to the FCC, the California State Legislation and the CPUC."

Bajter told the telecommunications providers that the situation is unacceptable.

“You have the obligation … to provide service to your customers. We really must do better,” she said.

Executives from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile, Frontier Communications and Charter/Time Warner at a hearing in San Francisco of the California Public Utilities Commission regarding cellphone service during wildfires and power shutoffs on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.
Executives from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, T-Mobile, Frontier Communications and Charter/Time Warner at a hearing in San Francisco of the California Public Utilities Commission regarding cellphone service during wildfires and power shutoffs on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

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Hundreds of thousands of customers were without wireline, VoIP and wireless, which provide access to 911 and websites with key information during disasters, and allow public officials to send emergency alerts, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES).

Cal OES experienced a number of problems amid the twin crises: Some providers didn’t offer outage data, while others were slow to respond due to confidentiality concerns, said Paul Troxel, 911 program management division chief at Cal OES.

Troxel said that “lack of complete reporting” forced Cal OES to work with the FCC to activate voluntary reporting — which then revealed differences in data, with the numbers significantly diverging in some cases between the FCC and the California Utilities Emergency Association. That data was also dated — from 12 to 24 hours old, he added, rather than in real time.

Cal OES officials said it appeared that telecom providers leaned on temporary generators — some that were from out of state and not in compliance with the California Air Resources Board standards, meaning it took additional time to get the equipment in place.

A portable generator connected to an AT&T cell tower at the old Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato on Nov. 11, 2019. The company says the generator runs on fuel. Nearly 60% of cell towers in Marin County lost power during the PG&E shutoffs on Oct. 28.
A portable generator connected to an AT&T cell tower at the old Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato on Nov. 11, 2019. The company says the generator runs on fuel. Nearly 60% of cell towers in Marin County lost power during the PG&E shutoffs on Oct. 28. (Paul Lancour/KQED)

Telecom provider representatives told KQED they deployed backup power sources, like fixed and permanent generators that ran off fuel, plus batteries, in some areas during the shutoffs.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon said they maintained service for most of their customers. But T-Mobile said some of its customers in Sonoma, Contra Costa, Alameda and Marin counties may have had issues with its service.

Sprint said a number of sites may have experienced disruptions, but that “our teams refueled generators that were in use as quickly as possible.” U.S. Cellular said that if power outages had gone on for much longer, getting access to fuel to keep their generators running “would have been a significant issue, we believe.” And AT&T said though it brought in generators from across the country, it wasn't enough to cover all of their facilities left without commercial power.

Verizon said in a letter to the CPUC on Monday that it would make public data about its cell tower service. T-Mobile and AT&T said they would, too.

But neither AT&T nor T-Mobile felt the tower data was the right metric to use.

"Counting the number of sites down is not a good proxy for the actual customer experience," said David Gallacher, regional vice president at T-Mobile USA, noting that some of their “off-air” sites were used for additional capacity during the events.

FCC has also said the number of cell site outages didn’t necessarily correspond to the availability of wireless service since providers can lean on other tools, like roaming agreements and mobile towers on wheels, to provide coverage.

District 1 Supervisor Moke Simon, from Lake County, spoke at the California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Wednesday Nov. 20, 2019. He said AT&T, which runs the county's sewer systems, went down immediately in Lake County. "We had ... a lot of folks out there working with generators, but they weren't able to communicate with the system as it went down immediately with no backup generation. ... That really put us in a dire straits situation. It also created at least one spill that was uncontainable." The spill, he said, lasted several days after the power had come back on.
District 1 Supervisor Moke Simon, from Lake County, spoke at the California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Nov. 20, 2019. He said AT&T, which runs the county's sewer systems, went down immediately in Lake County on Oct. 26 during the PG&E power shutoffs. "We had ... a lot of folks out there working with generators, but they weren't able to communicate with the system as it went down immediately with no backup generation. ... That really put us in a dire straits situation. It also created at least one spill that was uncontainable." The spill, he added, lasted several days after the power had come back on. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Elizabeth Echols, director of the Public Advocates Office, an independent group within CPUC, wants the commission to require wireless facilities to have 72 hours of backup power.

“Consumers are doing their part to prepare for outages by having backup power and keeping their cell phones charged,” she said. “Communication companies must also do their part to keep the network up and running.”

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Some of the providers said they would work with the commission on exploring such a requirement — but expressed concerns.

“A one-size-fits-all standard does not take into account many of the feasibility and restrictions that we have in terms of guaranteeing backup power to all sites,” said Rudy Reyes, vice president of legal, public policy, and community affairs at Verizon. “But in this unprecedented era, yes, we do recognize there is a need for state action here and we would welcome technical workshops to work out exactly what that standard ought to be.”

Melissa Kasnitz, a lawyer at the Center for Accessible Technology who advocates on behalf of disabled populations, said she felt the telecom executives were treating the hearing the way they'd been treating the issue for years: "with contempt."

"They are not taking seriously their responsibilities," she said. "Where they give ground, they give it grudgingly."

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