California Public Advocate Pushes for Backup Power at Cell Towers

Breakdowns in recent wildfires show that the state’s 911 system is highly vulnerable to power loss and state regulators need to intervene to make sure lives are not at risk in the next disaster, the public advocates branch of the state utilities commission concludes in a motion lodged Tuesday urging action.

“The high likelihood of the occurrence of more disasters this year calls for the immediate commission action laid out in this motion,” the Public Advocates Office concluded, adding: “The failure of our communications systems in emergencies is a life or death matter, and one that must be addressed immediately.”

The current 911 system is especially prone to cellular system failures, given that 80 percent of emergency calls are now made with wireless phones. But cell phone reliability in emergencies is getting worse, not better, according to the advocates office, which represents ratepayers in regulatory hearings.

An estimated 1 million people were unable to call 911 during storms in early 2017, and service breakdowns clearly hindered evacuation efforts in the Camp Fire, the safety advocates noted.

Following failures, the utilities commission had imposed fines and given providers credit for improvements in lieu of fines. Yet the advocates report concluded: “The commission’s outage standards are still not met.”

“The Commission should no longer tolerate the extensive periods, over two years in some cases, of not meeting the outage standards,” the advocates found, adding that e-mail and data traffic has proven vulnerable as well.

The key to assuring improvements is back-up power for cell phone towers, the motion found.

“Requiring more robust backup battery power and generators will decrease wireless service outages and shorten their duration, the safety advocates found, adding that both federal and state regulators have considered such requirements, “then effectively backed away.”

The motion urges the commission to order cell and data providers to install backup generators or batteries to wireless systems in areas at high risk of fires and floods. The motion calls for providers to bolster their systems by providing backup paths to assure service, and upgrade messaging system to alert customers to pending evacuations.

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