PG&E blackout knocks out one-quarter of Sonoma County cellphone towers
A quarter of the cellphone towers in Sonoma County lost power Monday, reducing the reach of a critical communications tool during a rapidly evolving crisis triggered by the Kincade fire, a massive PG&E blackout and the largest evacuation in county history.
The degradation of the region’s cellphone network exposed gaps in carriers’ plans to preserve service during PG&E shut-offs and triggered calls for legislation requiring carriers to provide backup power at cell sites.
More than 100 of the approximately 430 cell sites in Sonoma County were knocked out of service because of a loss of power Monday, the peak day for cellphone network outages during the 11-day period since the Kincade fire erupted on Oct. 23, according to Federal Communications Commission records.
The problem was worse in Marin County, where nearly 60% of cell sites were down, while outages also were elevated in Lake (25.5%) and Napa (19.2%) counties, according to FCC records. Almost all were caused by loss of power.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes west county evacuees allowed to return Monday, said many people didn’t come home at first on account of PG&E’s power and gas shut-offs - and spotty cellphone service, which hampers the ability of local officials to warn residents during a wildfire and other emergencies.
“That’s very scary,” she said. “We need all of the forms of communication. If telecom companies aren’t stepping up, then we’re in trouble.”
Cellphones have replaced landline telephones in nearly 60% of households, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, evolving from a convenience to an essential part of contemporary life. The cellphone network is used to deliver emergency alerts, evacuation notices, notifications of PG&E power outages and other crucial information during a disaster. It also serves as a vital technology used by the public to call for help, locate family members and friends, identify routes to safety, access news and communicate with others.
State bill proposed on towers
State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat whose district was heavily affected by the Kincade fire, the shut-offs and the evacuations, has proposed legislation that would require cell towers in California’s high-risk fire areas to have backup power systems capable of surviving at least 48 hours. Cell sites outside those districts, predominantly less populated rural areas, would not be subject to the requirements.
His bill, SB 431, would create a pathway to warn customers when these power systems run low on power. The measure is important, McGuire said, because “our phones have become our life.”
“It’s how we communicate with the rest of the world, and it’s also how we receive our emergency alerts during times of disaster,” he said. “This bill isn’t about checking your latest Facebook status. This bill is literally about life and death.”
A spokesman for Sonoma County’s emergency operations center acknowledged that cell site outages constrain its ability to deliver wireless alerts but said the scope, duration and impact were still being researched.
The FCC outage figures were produced by a disaster data reporting system activated Oct. 24 before two PG&E power cuts to prevent its equipment from starting wildfires. The FCC relied on several wireless companies that participate in a voluntary industry agreement, including major providers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Data are not broken down by carrier, as the FCC considers that information confidential.
Cell site outages because of loss of power in Sonoma County jumped to 67 last Sunday and peaked at 109 Monday. On Tuesday, the number of cell sites without power dipped to 91, and on Wednesday, 68. There were still 24 sites out on Thursday and by Friday, after PG&E made strides to restore electricity service across the county, only 10 sites remained without power.
Major cellphone companies, who insisted last summer they were well prepared for prolonged PG&E power outages, now face hard questions about their ability to maintain communications during blackouts and public emergencies.
In August, the nation’s largest wireless companies told The Press Democrat they could continue to power most or all of their cellphone towers with generators and batteries during a planned PG&E outage as long as their crews could access those sites. That reporting helped prompt the FCC in September to ask cell companies for more details about their contingency plans, which they provided later that month.
But despite the plans and pledges to work to ensure continued service, networks faltered in PG&E’s first preemptive blackout in October. Those problems continued last week during the most recent wave of PG&E power shutdowns.