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California Lawmakers Push for Cell Backup After Fires

State legislators in California plan to push for measures to require at least 72 hours of backup power at cell towers after phone and Internet service failed during widespread PG&E power outages.

(TNS) — State legislators plan to push for measures to require at least 72 hours of backup power at cell towers after phone and internet service failed during widespread PG&E power outages.

Many cell towers have generators installed that can run days without refueling, but some have batteries that only last a few hours in locations where space limits or local regulations prohibit more. And in the middle of shut-offs or fire evacuations, companies can’t always access sites to install or refuel generators, cutting off service.

“That means that thousands of residents didn’t have access to emergency services or a way to know how long the power might be off,” state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, said at a Wednesday news conference in front of a cell phone tower on El Nido Ranch Road in Orinda. In Contra Costa County at the peak of October power outages, more than 3% of cell sites were down, companies reported.

“With fires raging nearby, they didn’t even know if they had been advised or ordered to evacuate. This is unacceptable,” Glazer said.

Glazer plans to introduce a bill in January to mandate that cell phone companies have at least 72 hours of backup power. A similar proposal earlier this year by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, would require 48 hours of backup power at cell towers in the highest fire risk zones. McGuire told The Chronicle in October he’s reconsidering if that’s long enough.

Glazer also proposed measures to require that utilities provide backup battery packs to vulnerable customers in PG&E’s medical baseline program and to clarify that hospitals can run on generators during shut-offs even if there’s no declared state of emergency.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, and local mayors joined Glazer at the Wednesday event.

It was the same day the California Public Utilities Commission grilled executives from eight phone and internet companies on their service failures during power outages. During the public hearing in San Francisco, representatives from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the CPUC’s Public Advocates’ Office called on the state to mandate 72 hours of backup power.

Internet and landline phone providers Frontier and Comcast already have 72-hour backup at central offices, which hold critical network equipment, but not at all smaller sites. Cell carrier Sprint said it would “look forward to working with (the commission) to explore options around that.” AT&T and Verizon executives said they would welcome technical workshops to determine the best amount of backup power, emphasizing that one-size solutions don’t fit all cell sites.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon pledged Wednesday to publicly disclose data about sites down during outages. They had previously said the information should remain confidential, citing security and competitive concerns.

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