Millions of Californians lost cellphone and landline service during PG&E’s premeditated wildfire-prevention blackouts. Now, California utility regulators and two state senators are pushing to make sure we’re not in for a repeat of that next time around.
According to the Chronicle, officials at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced in a filing this past Friday that cellular and cable services should be secured during planned blackouts. More specifically: Those cell and communication networks need to function adequately enough to allow people to reach emergency services, reliably call 911, and receive emergency information — like evacuation notices — via pushed cell phone warnings and by browsing the internet.
State Senators Steve Glazer and Mike McGuire are supporting legislation to assure those services and functionalities would further be secured for a three-day minimum. The bill they both introduced, California Senate Bill No. 431, would insure that, if passed, and it would do so using solar power wherever possible.
“What happened [this past fall regarding the planned outages] is completely unacceptable and it put millions of lives at risk,” McGuire said to the Chronicle about why he’s helping spearhead the piece of legislation.
For context: Data from the Federal Communications Commission that was published in the VC Star showed 874 cell towers were offline during the October 26th–27th power shutoff that affected some two million people in Northern California, knocking out more than half of Marin County’s cell sites alone.
“[This bill is] about keeping the lifeline of millions of Californians up and running during sustained power outages, and that’s their cell phone,” he adds, noting PG&E’s planned blackouts are likely to continue into the foreseeable future to prevent their equipment from sparking additional wildfires.
Communication network companies, like AT&T, are also adamant about protecting access to emergency services and other pertinent information during said power outages — though, it’s surely not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. AT&T is saying that such generator or battery backups may be clunky or impossible to install in certain locations.
And AT&T isn’t alone in their concerns. Per the Chronicle, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) has said that it’s unrealistic to believe each of California’s 50,000 or so smaller network sources — which serve an estimated 300 households, per channel — could be secured. Furthermore, each backed-up cell tower, no matter how large of a network it provides, would require some sort of generator or solar grid to power it.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) already manages what kind of generators can be used in the state, as to curb pollution — so CARB would, as well, have to approve each deployed model. And given that traditional, fossil-fuel-fed generators are astronomically cheaper than the eco-conscious, more advanced units the CPUC wants to use, this proposed solution to cellular blackouts is a pricey update to the state’s network grid. (However, Glazer and McGuire’s bill is technologically agnostic on the topic.)
CA Senate Bill No. 431 , which is currently in motion through the State Legislature, may fall into the regulatory hands of the CPUC by July 2021, but the agency that superintends the electric and communication utility board is aiming to both expedite the process and widen certain requirements come summer.
Detailed documentation on how each regional communication providers plan to protect customers from a loss of service during this year’s upcoming planned blackouts are due by March 20th.