California Wildfire Cellular Outages Could Have Been Easily Avoided

from the dysfunction-junction dept

As rolling blackouts and wildfires rattle California this week, many impacted residents are unable to use their cell phones. According to FCC data (pdf), 874 of the state?s 26,000 cell tower sites were out of commission on Monday, up from 630 on Sunday. Of that 874, 702 were caused by a loss of power to the cell site, 88 inoperable towers were due to cut fiber lines leading to the tower, and just 60 were caused by actual wind or fire damage.

It’s a problem that could have been avoided. After Hurricane Katrina, in 2008 the FCC passed rules mandating that cellular towers be upgraded to include battery backups or generators capable of delivering at least 8 hours of backup power, if not 24 or more. But the US cellular industry, you know, the one whose rates are some of the highest in the developed world, cried like a petulant child about the requirement and sued to scuttle the rules.

Backed by the then Bush White House, cellular carriers told anybody who’d listen that the requirement would create “a huge economic and bureaucratic burden” for the industry. A better approach, the industry proclaimed, would be to let the industry self-regulate and adhere to entirely voluntary guidelines, leaving it with the “flexibility” to adapt to problems as the industry saw fit:

“While we have the same goal as the FCC – to keep our networks running during times of emergency – we believe that having the flexibility to adapt to unique emergency situations will better serve American wireless consumers,” said CTIA President Steve Largent in a statement Monday.”

Keep in mind that the US telecom sector has received countless billions for network upgrades that are routinely only half delivered, if they’re delivered at all. More frequently, these companies gobble up tax breaks and regulatory favors, then proceed to engage in layoffs and fewer upgrades. In this case, the wireless industry didn’t want to have to use those record profits and government subsidies to upgrade towers and protect lives, and here we are.

Experts tell me the same problem reared its head during Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Irma, and Sandy. Yet somehow, government hasn’t quite figured out that letting giant telecom companies unhindered by healthy competition self-regulate generally doesn’t work out all that well when human lives are at stake:

?Nobody likes to pay for emergency preparedness,? Harold Feld, a wireless policy expert and lawyer at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard. ?That’s why you need rules to force companies to spend the money. Companies will spend as little as they think they have to, which is why regulators need to tell them how much they have to spend.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the same story has played out repeatedly on the state level. Fresh on the heels of convincing the FCC to self-immolate, the telecom sector has been trying to gut most California state oversight of broadband and wireless providers. As climate change accelerates and California attempts to impose meaningful public safeguards, it’s getting harder for industry to justify its dream scenario of zero meaningful oversight:

“I think 2020 will be a very busy year at the state regulator to promote public safety rules over the telecom industry,? Falcon said. ?This fire season and the number of people that had to be evacuated and rely on mobile devices for everything furthers the need to examine what works and address what is not working for people.”

The idea that eliminating government oversight of the broken and barely competitive telecom sector somehow results in rainbows and Utopian outcomes is a common refrain in US tech policy, where protecting and improving carrier revenues trumps any and every other consideration. But time and time again, evidence shows that eliminating consumer protections, emergency requirements, and other forms of fundamental oversight of the largely broken sector doesn’t end that well for anybody. If that lesson hadn’t already been obvious watching cable companies do business, climate change will quickly make it more so.

With any luck, we might just actually learn something before it’s too late.

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Comments on “California Wildfire Cellular Outages Could Have Been Easily Avoided”

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54 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: ...

How did people communicate before cellfones existed ?

POTS, supported by copper wire. Not maintained, more expensive, and also out of service. See below.

What else was affected by these power outages ?

Electrical power availability – over a period greater than 24 hours in many areas.

Unfunded government mandate.

Permitted monopolies and Oligarchies in the power and communications industries.

FCC bureaucrats casually click their keyboards and demand huge sums of money be spent by private businesses.

… which weren’t spent. And lo! Here’s a story about it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Self-regulation is fine for the internet!

Self-regulation is fine for me too!

A better approach, the industry proclaimed, would be to let the industry self-regulate and adhere to entirely voluntary guidelines, leaving it with the "flexibility" to adapt to problems as the industry saw fit…

A better approach would be to let me self-regulate and adhere to my own guidelines, leaving me the "flexibility" to adapt my behavior as I see fit.

Think how much money (i.e tax dollars) the government could save if they quit trying tell everyone what they can and can’t do! Fiscal responsibility, people!

Anonymous Coward says:

The fools in California should be thankful that all they have is a power shutdown and not a hurricane which would have destroyed their houses, livelihood and place then in mortal danger of loosing their life.

All this bitching for what is taken as daily life in the Caribbean is most sicking to read and really just shows just how out of sink with the world California is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Pitting the victims of various catastrophes against each other is sick, what is your problem?

All they have is a power shutdown, loss of their house and all their stuff and many are also out of work cause the business burnt down … no big deal tho – right?

If one were to adequately fund an agency to monitor weather related issues (NOAA) they would have an increased amount of time to evacuate. I do not think wild fires provide much advance notice.

Since you brought up islands and hurricanes, why did the present admin stop the promised aid to PR? It seems the present admin does not know that PR is part of the US.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re:

All this bitching for what is taken as daily life in the Caribbean is most sicking to read and really just shows just how out of sink with the world California is.

It isn’t the people of California responsible for the shoddy infrastructure – it’s because the power utility was de-regulated – the lack of preparedness points back to the Bush admin given them free reign to skimp on repairs and upgrades.

But just keep pushing El Cheetos false narrative that California is filled with terrible people just because they didn’t vote for him!

Anonymous Coward says:

"a huge economic and bureaucratic burden"

  • No big deal when the burden is foisted upon the unsuspecting public. Only fools clean up their own messes.

"let the industry self-regulate"

  • I have heard this silliness in various forms. Industry self regulation has lead to some deadly results.

"adhere to entirely voluntary guidelines"

  • How did that concept work out when inspections of airplanes was left to the manufacturer?

Yup … deregulation and privatization is working out so well in Calf they are having a fire sale.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is California where there’s all kinds of Regulations happening. California is the leftist Utopia. All of their policies have created this mess. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. You have the Environmentalists here, where you can’t cut down trees and clear brush around power lines/towers without a fight. Hell, you can’t let fires burn and so BRUSH everywhere just builds up and up until you have a fire and it grows massive because of that. Instead of letting nature do its thing. Now you can’t just let it go because all the brush is there now. So instead of a manageable fire, we have these huge fires.

Where the hell you got that California has "deregulation and privatization is working out so well in Calf" thing?!?! I think you clearly have the wrong state.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, that is a valid point – the people who live in the areas did not maintain adequate brush removal etc.
In addition, PG&E did not adequately maintain the fire breaks and power line easements thus allowing high winds to cause short circuit created fires. This would not the huge problem it is today had the power co done it due diligence wrt cutting back the vegetation. Property owners share a bit of this responsibility but they were not being paid to perform any vegetation mitigation whereas the pwr co was.

"Where the hell you got that California has "deregulation and privatization is working out so well in Calf" thing?!?! I think you clearly have the wrong state."

  • You clearly do not understand sarcasm.
Anonymous Coward says:

8 hours?

In 2008 the FCC passed rules mandating that cellular towers be upgraded to include battery backups or generators capable of delivering at least 8 hours of backup power, if not 24 or more.

Don’t landlines typically work for days without grid power? They’ll probably last longer than 8 hours on battery even after the generators die.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 8 hours?

"Land lines" … referring to the plain old telephone system?
Yes, POTS central offices were/are equipt with adequate batteries to sustain functionality for extended periods. They also have/had back up generators.
I have no idea what is in place these days, some areas no longer are serviced by POTS and cellular is the only option. Somewhere on the east coast after a hurricane blew away the POTS and verizon refuses to fix it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 8 hours?

Somewhere on the east coast after a hurricane blew away the POTS and verizon refuses to fix it.

That was Fire Island (alternate story).

Apparently the generators weren’t even a government requirement. It was simply that people expected their phones to work in an emergency, so the phone companies put some effort into it. That seems like something that should be easier today, with cheap solar and wind power and much better batteries. But it’s also easier to get away with not doing it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: 8 hours?

Apparently the generators weren’t even a government requirement.

A 2015 story by Jon Brodkin over at Ars Technica, “Internet providers lobby against backup power rules for phone lines”, provides a few details about government requirements for POTS backup power.

Although copper landlines stay connected during power outages as long as the phone lines remain functional, they have done so without any uniform nationwide requirement.

"Some states, depending on their level of deregulation, require backup power as part of their COLR [carrier of last resort] requirements," Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney Jodie Griffin told Ars.

The state requirements vary. Alaska requires eight hours of power while Iowa requires just two, for example.

Searching for the keyword “power” in both of the embedded links leads you to the text of the Alaska and Iowa requirements for POTS common carriers.

Anonymous Coward says:

There would be no seatbelts in cars,or crash testing , if the car industry was run like telecoms in america.
companys need regulations to ensure standard rules for public safety,
cars have to be tested for emission standards due to epa regualtions .
self regulation does not work,
There should be a simple rule ,all cell towers should have a 24 hour battery backup, especially in area.s where there are frequent hurricane,s ,
fires and floods .
when people have to be evacuated is the worst time for cell towers
to be switched off .

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There would be no seatbelts in cars,or crash testing , if the car industry was run like telecoms in america.

There were no seatbelts or crash testing, and the American car companies responded to the ideas with reluctance and hostility. See Unsafe At Any Speed by Ralph Nader. "Nader says that GM responded to his criticism of the Corvair by trying to destroy Nader’s image and to silence him. … Senate hearings prompted by the book led to the creation of the Department of Transportation and the predecessor agencies of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1966. … The book has continuing relevance: it addressed what Nader perceived as the political meddling of the car industry to oppose new safety features, which parallels the debates in the 1990s over the mandatory fitting of airbags in the United States, and industry efforts by the ACEA to delay the introduction of crash tests to assess vehicle-front pedestrian protection in the European Union."

(And while the phone company was an overpriced monopoly at that time, the service was reliable even during power outages.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Senate hearings prompted by the book led to the creation of the Department of Transportation and the predecessor agencies of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1966.

Oh, so we have Nader to "thank" for that. Might have know it was some lefty. Now we not only have seatbelts, we have laws that say you have to wear them too! Laws to "protect people from themselves"? How commie is that? Time to undo that damage and make America great again, pre-Nader style!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

So, you are put in jeopardy by other drivers not wearing seatbelts? Do tell. I guess you also want those other drivers to wear helmets so as to somehow not put put you in "jeopardy". I once also read the the most common cause of death in vehicle-pedestrian accidents was head injuries. So, maybe helmets should also be required for pedestrians crossing streets.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I can identify with the air bag mandate, its why I’m alive today. Driver wehn left of center and hits us at 40 MPH. Without air bags, my wife and I are dead. Yes, we had injuries but even our insurance agent, after looking at what was left of our car, said that a 10 year old car would have left her with 2 fatalities to deal with vs. medical bills but 2 clients who still are paying.

ECA (profile) says:

Anyone know the federal...

requirements for Home based phones in ALL areas of the USA??

https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/emergency-communications

Let me print this please…
______________________________________________________
Network and power outages
The FCC has established the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) to allow wireless, wireline, broadcast and cable providers voluntarily to report on the status of their infrastructure and operations during times of crisis. This information is not made public, but allows the FCC to monitor and evaluate communications services during a crisis. DIRS supplements the Network Outage Reporting System (NORS). Through NORS, the FCC requires wireless, wireline, cable and satellite companies providing voice and paging services to report significant disruptions or outages to their networks, and disruptions affecting 911 facilities or airports. Again the data is not made public, but allows the FCC to monitor and evaluate disruptions and outages.

If there is a power outage during an emergency, your wireline phone, wireless device or VoIP service may not work unless you have a back-up power supply. If you suffer only an electrical power outage, you should still be able to use a traditional wireline (but not cordless) telephone, because electrical and telephone transmissions use different circuits or wires and telephone company facilities have back-up power available. If you keep the battery on your wireless phone or other device fully charged, these devices should also continue working during a power outage.

Note that because wireless networks may be congested during an emergency, sending a text message may work better than placing a voice call. Finally, unless you have a battery-operated TV or radio, these devices will not work during a power outage.

911 call centers or PSAPs currently lack the technical capability to receive texts, photos and video.

Emergency preparedness and crisis information
For additional information on communicating during emergencies and helpful tips on emergency preparedness, visit the website of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. You may also want to visit the websites of these other federal government emergency organizations:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency , is responsible for responding to national disasters and helping state and local governments and individuals prepare for emergencies.

The Department of Homeland Security , is responsible for preventing terrorist attacks within the United States and reducing America’s vulnerability to terrorism. DHS’s National Terrorism Advisory System communicates information about terrorist threats by providing timely, detailed information to the public, government agencies, first responders, airports and other transportation hubs, and the private sector.
_________________________________________________________

NOW consider…DHS and FEMA/others would LOVE for things to be FIXED.. so what the hell are we waiting for.

https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us/

ECA (profile) says:

Anyone know the federal...

requirements for Home based phones in ALL areas of the USA??

https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/emergency-communications

Let me print this please…
______________________________________________________
Network and power outages
The FCC has established the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) to allow wireless, wireline, broadcast and cable providers voluntarily to report on the status of their infrastructure and operations during times of crisis. This information is not made public, but allows the FCC to monitor and evaluate communications services during a crisis. DIRS supplements the Network Outage Reporting System (NORS). Through NORS, the FCC requires wireless, wireline, cable and satellite companies providing voice and paging services to report significant disruptions or outages to their networks, and disruptions affecting 911 facilities or airports. Again the data is not made public, but allows the FCC to monitor and evaluate disruptions and outages.

If there is a power outage during an emergency, your wireline phone, wireless device or VoIP service may not work unless you have a back-up power supply. If you suffer only an electrical power outage, you should still be able to use a traditional wireline (but not cordless) telephone, because electrical and telephone transmissions use different circuits or wires and telephone company facilities have back-up power available. If you keep the battery on your wireless phone or other device fully charged, these devices should also continue working during a power outage.

Note that because wireless networks may be congested during an emergency, sending a text message may work better than placing a voice call. Finally, unless you have a battery-operated TV or radio, these devices will not work during a power outage.

911 call centers or PSAPs currently lack the technical capability to receive texts, photos and video.

Emergency preparedness and crisis information
For additional information on communicating during emergencies and helpful tips on emergency preparedness, visit the website of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. You may also want to visit the websites of these other federal government emergency organizations:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency , is responsible for responding to national disasters and helping state and local governments and individuals prepare for emergencies.

The Department of Homeland Security , is responsible for preventing terrorist attacks within the United States and reducing America’s vulnerability to terrorism. DHS’s National Terrorism Advisory System communicates information about terrorist threats by providing timely, detailed information to the public, government agencies, first responders, airports and other transportation hubs, and the private sector.
_________________________________________________________

NOW consider…DHS and FEMA/others would LOVE for things to be FIXED.. so what the hell are we waiting for.

https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us/

Johnny says:

No, its HOAs that killed a lot of it... not the Telco/Wireless

It’s funny. People want cell phone coverage, but try to build a cell tower near them and they get all pissed off. This is in ALL states, asshats. Not just Cali.

Then, you want a cell tower that works during an outage, but then people get all weepy when they have to listen to a backup generator fire up on occasion. Right, so you want a back up that’s never tested, and then HOPE it works when you need it? Asshats.. So people then ban the evil loud backup generators on the use permits from the city. When you let stupid people make stupid rules… whether its the FCC, Federal, State, local or HOA… you get stupidity to follow.

But feel free to blame the wireless providers, FCC, California, etc..

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

When all else fails & self inflicted

Two points:

First, when all else fails, Ham Radio works. Ham radio being one of the first long range, distributed architecture, wide area networks ever made. It still works when the managed and official infrastructure fail.

Second, these issues are self-inflicted. The spend-thrift state government squandered so much tax money that the population had to mandate limits on taxation by Proposition 13. None the less, the regular election of spending insane state governments means there is no tax money except to elect more spending insane state governments. Thus, there is neither money for infrastructure nor backbone to fix the problem. Certainly, the courts are part of the problem with the also insane belief that investors have a right to no risk, and therefor, the PG&E must maximize investor income at the expense of due diligence. Self inflicted in spades.

Give California back to Mexico, if Mexico will take it. Otherwise, guard yourself in the up coming election. More spending insane (as well as investor brown-nosing) politicians want to spread the California virus to your state & home.

AC

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: When all else fails & self inflicted

Sure, everyone has a ham radio.

"The issue" began when the state of calf deregulated utilities.
Do you remember Enron?
The privatize everything movement has a credibility problem in that the results they claim are never realized and in fact the complete opposite of what they predict is actually what happens.

People that think they can buy/sell/trade entire countries or states …. seriously – wtf? Is this more of that nation building bullshit? Why not try soma that sweet regime change in calf?

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