New requirements will keep phone and internet going in wildfire zones

State utility regulators are forcing communication companies to keep landline phone, internet and data services running even when the lights go out in wildfire danger zones.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously Thursday to require communications companies into providing 72-hours of backup power and minimum service for wireline networks. It only applies to areas considered high fire-threat districts.

Wildfires, public safety power shutoffs, and summer rotating power outages highlighted the areas dependent on wireline networks. In some cases, entire communities had limited or no coverage, crippling efforts of emergency responders.

"When these networks go out, they are left with literally nothing," CPUC President Marybel Batjer said. "Losing this critical lifeline during these ever-increasing times of emergencies is not acceptable."

Wired communications companies are being given eight months to develop back-up systems for schools, hospitals, and emergency communications facilities.

Landline phone and internet service must be maintained to avoid 911 outages, data sharing and emergency coordination. Additionally, companies are now required to better communicate with customers and participate in regular preparedness exercises.

"They’re an essential service and Californians have been paying for this service," Ana Maria Johnson with the independent Public Advocates Office at the CPUC said. "It’s time for companies to step up and deliver the service that’s reliable."

For several years, the Public Advocates Office has been urging the CPUC to reign in communications companies. Last summer, wireless providers were ordered to install back-up power to their towers.

The commission said these efforts ensure networks will be resilient and continue to operate. It estimates one in five 911 calls in California are from a landline phone.

Now, with children learning online, people regularly working remotely, and access to health services over the telephone and internet, Johnson said enforcement will be necessary.

"We cannot rely on the communication companies to do this on their own," Johnson said. "We need to hold the companies accountable to make sure their services work, especially during an emergency."

But for residential customers in high fire-prone areas, the companies are not required to comply with the new back-up power requirements for 18 months.

"It’s a very critical, needed first step. But there’s a lot of work still to be done," Johnson said.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU