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California Fires Disable Phones, Reviving Calls for Backup

Todd Shields

(Bloomberg) -- Voluntary blackouts by utilities to prevent wildfires left telephones useless around California, reviving questions about whether more should be done to preserve service during disasters.

“California is burning. Phones are not working. It’s time for the @FCC to start investigating,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s minority Democrats, said in a tweet Friday.

There is no requirement for cell sites to have backup power. The industry has resisted efforts to make that mandatory, arguing that would be burdensome, in part because it can be expensive to rent space for equipment and hard to get permits to store fuel in some places.

Utilities cut power to prevent more blazes as at least 10 large wildfires erupted across California in recent days. On Monday, 57% of cell sites in Marin County were down, limiting wireless service as cell sites ran out of power, according to the FCC.

Cable and wired phone service was out for 455,000 subscribers. By Friday, as fires receded and utilities restored power, outages affected 110 cell sites, or less than 1% of more than 30,000 sites in three dozen counties, the FCC said.

In Congress, 23 U.S. representatives from California requested a hearing.

“Our telecommunications infrastructure has failed many times” during fires and other disasters, the representatives said in a letter to Commerce Committee leaders. The signers included Representatives Anna Eshoo and Mike Thompson, both Democrats.

Evan Gilbert, a committee spokesman, declined to comment.

During power shutdowns, many California residents realized that phones using voice-over-internet technology don’t work, and that cell towers are vulnerable to outages, the lawmakers said in their letter. They requested a hearing to discuss the role of telecommunications during natural disasters.

Rosenworcel said the FCC should consider how not requiring backup power has made it “harder to reach out in disaster.”

In decades past, telephones at the end of copper lines could offer service, even during widespread electricity failures, if a nearby hub managed to have power, perhaps from a generator.

Now more than half of American households -- and more than 70% of adults renting their homes -- rely on mobile phones, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

After Hurricane Michael plowed across Florida’s Panhandle in 2018, the FCC in a report said phone recovery was slowed by a lack of coordination between carriers, power companies that sometimes cut restored lines, and localities.

The agency in 2016 endorsed a wireless industry pledge to promote resiliency in wireless networks during disasters through steps including letting calls travel on one another’s networks, having companies help each other, and boosting public awareness.

CTIA, a trade group for companies including Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., in a statement said that “providers invest significant resources to strengthen and harden networks so that they are able to maintain service during emergencies.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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