State regulators call communications companies to task for service failures

Representatives from major communications companies in California were blasted for their performance and response to the October public safety power shutoffs.

The California Public Utilities Commission held a public hearing Wednesday asking questions and promising that they would be held accountable, especially after listening to public comments calling for change.

“You have the obligation, as well as the privilege, and indeed the responsibility, to provide service to your customers,” commission president Marybel Batjer said. “We really must do better.”

Last week, 2 Investigates profiled the 700 towers across California that were down, many because of no power. As a result, many people had no cellular service preventing them from calling 911, receiving emergency alerts, or connecting with loved ones. Since then, the hearing was announced and legislation was introduced by Senator Steve Glazer proposed to harden cell phone towers.

Right now, there is no state law requiring communication companies to have power backups in place. Instead, each company submitted plans to the Federal Communications Commission to deal with public safety power shutoffs. 

But a key highlight was the failure of telecoms to keep emergency personnel informed, including who had service and who didn’t. Specifically, they were accused of endangering lives and not following their own preparedness plans.

“This is unacceptable. There’s no way to communicate with those who are supposed to go out to repair those networks,” Louis Rocha with the Communications Workers of America said. “Self-policing by the companies isn’t the path forward -- oversight is.”

Major wireless companies defended themselves saying battery backups and generators were put in place, information was shared, and the majority of towers stayed online.

“We are learning as we go through this process with the much larger outage situations,” a Sprint representative said.

Telecom companies explained the increased time and frequency of power shutoffs is unprecedented and ever-changing, casting some of the blame on utility Pacific Gas and Electric.

Verizon was the only company praised for being more transparent and willing to detail where towers were down or where service was lacking during a disaster or incident. T-Mobile said it would be willing to do the same. Others, including Comcast expressed issues surrounding privacy and confidentiality. That was met with criticism by the board president arguing it’s a matter of public safety.

“What kind of requirement do we need to make on this very important service that you all provide for the people of California?” Batjer said. “It’s sort of stunning that you go well, we just learned a lot in the last three weeks. Where’s the preparedness for resiliency? That’s a concern.”