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PG&E Outages Leave Thousands Without Internet, Phone Service

Most of the outages were in Southern California, with a dozen cell sites down in Orange County and two dozen in San Diego. None were reported out in Los Angeles County, where the Tick Fire is burning.

by Mallory Moench, San Francisco Chronicle / October 28, 2019

(TNS) — Nearly 11,500 customers in California were out of service — cut off from telephone, television or Internet access — as of Friday morning during the outages and wildfires crippling the state, companies reported to the Federal Communications Commission.

In the Bay Area, seven cell sites were down in Sonoma County, where the Kincade Fire has raged since Wednesday night, due to loss of power. Four were out in San Mateo due to damage or issues with the network that routes communication.

Most of the outages were in Southern California, with a dozen cell sites down in Orange County and two dozen in San Diego. None were reported out in Los Angeles County, where the Tick Fire is burning.

Overall, less than 1% of cell sites in 14 counties were down. Four FM radio stations also reported being out of service.

“It still continues to show that people rely on these services. When they’re not available, they can’t access emergency services and 911 and other services that they need to obtain assistance for,” said Chris Ungson, deputy director for water and communications policy for the California Public Utilities Commission Public Advocates Office.

Ungson said companies “have not been forthcoming” about the locations of cell sites, which ones have backup battery power, and how long they’ll last. His office has been pushing for regulations to require reporting.

The FCC initiated its Disaster Information Reporting System on Thursday, asking communication providers serving 14 affected counties to voluntarily report the numbers and locations of sites down by Friday. The filings did not state which companies responded. The FCC said the number and location of cell site outages doesn’t necessarily correspond to availability of wireless service because networks often have overlapping sites or temporary options like mobile cell sites.

Companies told the FCC they installed permanent and temporary generators for sites without backup power and readied a fleet of portable cell sites before the outage. AT&T announced Thursday it is providing unlimited talk, text and data to customers in six ZIP codes affected by the Kincade Fire from Friday until Monday, which the company also did during the first fire-prevention outage PG&E instituted this month.

The Chronicle asked five major carriers in California —AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular — on Friday whether their network had sites that went out and why they failed.

Sprint’s wireless network “is operating within normal parameters in the areas impacted by the commercial power shut-offs,” spokesman Roni Singleton said in an email. “We are continuing to closely monitor the situation.”

AT&T spokesman Vince Bitong said in an email that the company’s “network continues to operate normally in areas affected by the power shutdown. We continue to move quickly to deploy and refuel additional generators, and are ready to respond to restore service where needed.”

U.S. Cellular said Friday none of its sites were down. T-Mobile declined to comment. Verizon didn’t respond.

During the PG&E power outage earlier this month, cell phone service was down for up to 10% of Bay Area subscribers to the major carriers — T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon. Some residents across the Bay Area also reported landlines out of service, a surprise to many who depended on them during outages for years. That’s because more companies are switching to internet voice technology that requires a powered network connection to make calls, unlike older phone networks that provide their own power and may stay on during blackouts.

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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