FCC Pushes California Cell Providers to Prep for Wildfires

The FCC, which regulates telephone companies and Internet service providers, has sent letters to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon asking for each company’s emergency response plan.

by Mallory Moench, San Francisco Chronicle / September 17, 2019

(TNS) — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could soon shut off power for more than 48 hours during high wildfire risk — and the federal government wants to know how cell service providers are prepared to keep up service during what could be days of darkness.

PG&E will shut off power when risk of wildfire is high to avoid electrical equipment sparking a blaze like in the devastating 2018 Camp Fire. Anyone served by PG&E — some 16 million people — could lose power at any time, the company warned.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates telephone companies and internet service providers, sent letters to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon asking for each company’s emergency response plan by Sept. 23. Lisa Fowlkes, a commission official in charge of public safety, recently traveled to California and met with state and local officials about emergency communications.

“Wildfires are a threat in many parts of the country,” Fowlkes said in a statement. “As always, we must hope for the best while taking action to protect our communities should emergency strike.”

The Public Advocates’ Office of the California Public Utilities Commission said in a motion filed in May that the state wasn’t equipped to deal with more disasters.

“The failure of our communications systems in emergencies is a life or death matter, and one that must be addressed immediately,” the office wrote in the motion.

In letters last week, the FCC requested a description of all the steps each company has taken or plans to take for potential shutoffs — including ensuring communication for public safety officials and residents, preparing backup power, reaching out to consumers, and planning for coordination with other agencies.

The letter also asked about additional measures to harden infrastructure or construct additional infrastructure in areas prone to wildfire. Service providers are not required to have backup generators for cell towers.

“We have designed our network and support operations to be prepared for a number of potential situations, including power failures,” Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said in an email. “In addition, we work closely with power companies during outages and this situation is no different.”

U.S. Cellular, Sprint and AT&T declined to say how they were prepared for shutoffs, saying the information would be in their responses to the FCC due next week. T-Mobile didn’t respond to a request for comment. The phone companies have previously said that they have batteries and backup generators that can power cell towers for 4 to 72 hours in the event of a shutoff.

In this year’s wildfire season, PG&E expanded its plan for shutoffs to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-risk zones. Because that now includes transmission lines, those shutoffs could affect customers well away from those areas. To prepare, PG&E installed 160 devices to limit the geographical impact of shutting off power and more than 560 weather stations to gauge threats, the company said this month.

PG&E predicts shutoffs could happen several times a year, but “it is impossible to predict with certainty when, where and how often extreme weather conditions could occur given the rapidly changing environmental conditions,” the company said on its website. When possible, PG&E will notify customers 48 hours before shutoffs, but can’t guarantee advance warning in extreme weather.

“Given the increase in extreme weather events we have seen in recent years, we may need to turn off power to protect public safety,” PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said in an email. “We know how much our customers rely on electric service and that there are safety risks on both sides. We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects first responders and the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more.”

The company said it conducted a shutoffs preparedness workshop for telecommunications and has been meeting with providers one-on-one to make sure they have the information and resources they need.

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

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