Despite plans, hundreds of cellular towers still went down during power shutoff

Cellular companies have limited plans to keep cell phones functional during utility power shutoffs and natural disasters, but shortfalls recently left thousands of wireless customers without the ability to receive critical alerts, connect with loved ones, and call 911.

Data voluntarily submitted by wireless companies to the Federal Communications Commission shows that more than 700 cell phone towers were down across California on Oct. 28. That’s when Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to several hundred thousand people in Northern California to prevent power lines from sparking fires amid hot weather and hurricane-force winds.

“That’s potentially a huge problem if somebody’s got a medical issue or if a fire breaks out,” Marin County Emergency Services Coordinator Woody Baker-Cohn said. “It’s also very difficult for us to find out where the cell phone towers are.”

In Marin County alone, records show that roughly 60% of towers were down during the PG&E shutoffs. However, because wireless companies are not required by state law to inform county emergency managers about down towers, officials were in the dark about where the non-functioning towers were located. No tracking data exists to know who may have called 911 and failed to get through because of the towers were down.

“I think expecting cell phone companies to do this on their own initiative is probably naïve,” Baker-Cohn said.

The FCC sent a letter to the five major cellular companies in September warning of upcoming power shutoffs and requesting plans to be in place to keep wireless services up and running.

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular all responded and explained that back-ups like batteries, portable generators, or mobile cell sites were ready to go. 
But went the power was cut, those plans meant little to the thousands who lost cell service.

KTVU asked all major carriers about what went wrong during the recent power shutoff and what was being done to improve back-up plans in the future. Despite the towers being down, none of the companies acknowledged any sort of problem. 

•    Sprint responded saying it “experienced relatively minimal impact” and “our teams refueled generators that were in use as quickly as possible.” Additionally, the company pointed to “extensive roaming agreements in the area” keeping people connected, but did say it will conduct a review and look for way to improve preparations. 
•    Verizon said its “network was not impacted” and that it “outperformed the competition.”
•    AT&T noted the short timeline for response but said its network “continued to operate at or above 97%” and also mentioned it “utilized backup power solutions.”
•    T-Mobile said “a very small number of cell sites were affecting, impacting a limited number of customers” and that more than 260 sites affected, and running on generator power, were refueled.

“It’s unacceptable and they need to be held accountable,” said Ana Maria Johnson, who works for an independent arm of the California Public Utilities Commission that advocates for ratepayers. “Action must be immediate. We cannot wait and see what happens.”

Johnson and her office have urged the CPUC to force telecom companies to have back-ups in place at all towers. In May, a request was formally submitted, but so far nothing has been done.

Instead, the time it takes to restore power or a cell site is entirely up to the companies themselves.   

“Their plan is to deploy assets where the emergency is happening,” Johnson said. “The problem is those deployable assets may be an hour, three hours, three days away.”

Craig Fugate, who is part of an FCC working group aimed at improving disaster communications, said the “public has a low tolerance in a crisis for failure.” 

“That’s going to result in more calls for legislation, more regulation and more oversight,” he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the CPUC announced it would hold a public hearing examining telecom provider operations during the October power shutoffs and said the companies' performance was "unacceptable" and failed to be transparent with emergency agencies.