Mobile Phone Providers Prepare for Power Outages - NBC Bay Area
NBC Bay Area Responds Archive

NBC Bay Area Responds Archive

Mobile Phone Providers Prepare for Power Outages

Some wireless phones should still function, but service may be spotty

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Mobile Phone Providers Prepare for Power Outages

    When the power goes out, wireless phone providers will be working to keep service online -- but be prepared for limited coverage in some areas. Consumer Investigator Chris Chmura reports.

    (Published Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019)

    What to Know

    • Verizon says it is deploying backup plans to keep most of its wireless phone towers working during the planned PG&E power outages

    • Service may be limited in some areas

    • Fully charge your phones while you still have power; keep a charging cable in your car

    Mobile phone providers are gearing up to keep wireless service up and running this week, as much of the San Francisco Bay Area will be without power during planned PG&E outages.

    NBC Bay Area asked the four largest phone carriers what they're doing to prepare, and whether customers can count on using their phones.

    Verizon spokesperson Jeannine Brew Braggs said the carrier plans to keep its subscribers phones working as much as possible, by using backup power.

    "We have generators and backup batteries at the majority of our cell sites (towers), and all of our switch locations (network nerve center) to keep our network up and running if commercial power is lost," Brew Braggs said in an email. "We are able to refuel our generators to keep them running... This ensures our network can continue serving customers indefinitely until commercial power is restored."

    Areas Affected by the Public Safety Power Shutoff

    A planned outage from PG&E is expected to hit roughly 800,000 customers in parts of Northern, Central and coastal California.

    Enter your location in the search bar below to see if you or your area will be affected.

    Data: PG&E
    Nina Lin/NBC

    T-Mobile told NBC Bay Area it has "...permanent generators in key cell sites to ensure they remain in service and other sites are prepared with battery backup. We also have a fleet of temporary generators that our emergency response teams can deploy if needed."

    T-Mobile encouraged customers to keep phones charged ahead of the blackout, but cautioned service may be limited in some areas. It said customers can dial 6-1-1 for help with their accounts.

    Updated Thursday: AT&T told us it is also working closely with power utilities across the state, throughout the planned outages.

    "We continue to communicate with PG&E and SoCal Edison as we prepare our network for this power shutdown," said an AT&T spokesperson. "We’re closely monitoring and are deploying resources from other states to support our customers and public safety, including staging hundreds of additional generators and equipment. We are actively refueling generators and preparing additional assets for quick deployment in the state."

    AT&T later added: 

    "To keep AT&T wireless and AT&T PREPAID customers in areas directly affected by the planned power outage in parts of California connected during this difficult time, we’re providing unlimited talk, text and data access by issuing credits and waiving overage charges. This offer is for customers based in 758 specific zip codes and runs from October 9, 2019 through midnight on October 13.

    We will apply the credits and waivers automatically for AT&T wireless customers with billing addresses and AT&T PREPAID customers with phone numbers in directly impacted zip codes at this time. Customers in these areas may still receive alerts during these dates, but accounts will reflect the credits and/or waived data, voice and text charges."

    Sprint told NBC Bay Area in a statement that it is "...coordinating closely with local governments and PG&E to prepare our sites in impacted areas. We will stay in close contact throughout the planned outage to support our customers."

    CTIA, the wireless phone industry trade association and lobby, says its members could deploy small, portable phone repeaters in areas where towers aren't working in an emergency.

    "When a disaster takes out commercial power, portable generators can bring cell sites back online," CTIA said on its website. "Cell on Wheels (COWs) and Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs) are portable network facilities capable of providing extra coverage and boosting capacity. Cell Repeaters on Wheels (CROWs) are used to boost weak signals. Remote Mobility Sites are small, portable cell sites in a 'suitcase' that provide voice and data in remote locations."

    Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission urged wireless telecom companies to provide back-up power sources for mobile phone service towers, so phones will still work in the event of a disaster.

    "Requiring more robust backup battery power and generators will decrease wireless service outages and shorten their duration," the CPUC Public Advocates Office said in May, adding that both federal and state regulators have considered such requirements, "then effectively backed away."

    Phone users should think about battery backups, too. You'll want to fully charge your phones before you go to bed Tuesday night, and make sure you have charging cables in your car.

    Landline customers may not be immune to loss of phone service. While older copper wire phone lines traditionally worked when the power was out, many modern landlines use technology that requires a separate, dedicated power source.

    Comcast provides landline services around the Bay Area. Spokesperson Joan Hammel said some customers may not be able to use their landline phones.

    "Comcast services require commercial power to operate, so as PG&E implements its Public Safety Power Outage, our services to residential and business customers may be impacted," Hammel said. "We will work to restore services when the power is back on and it is safe to do so."

    Hammel added that landline phones that do not require power should continue to work normally, even when the power is out.

    (Note: Comcast is the parent company of NBC Bay Area.)

    “We continue to communicate with PG&E and SoCal Edison as we prepare our network for this power shutdown. We’re closely monitoring and are deploying resources from other states to support our customers and public safety, including staging hundreds of additional generators and equipment. We are actively refueling generators and preparing additional assets for quick deployment in the state."

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