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In a move that could affect Malibu and other areas at high risk for wildfires, the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday will decide whether to force providers to ensure 72 hours of uninterrupted phone service during power outages.
At issue is system “resiliency,” that is preparedness efforts to keep communications services available. This includes during preemptive power outages — the so-called public safety power shutoffs — as well as wildfires and other disasters.
Besides being the year that a virus changed how we live, 2020 was also the largest wildfire season in California’s modern history, with some 9,600 fires burning more than 4 million of the state’s roughly 100 million acres of land.
Two years earlier, the Woolsey Fire devastated Malibu, which, according to the CPUC, is in the high-risk Tier 2/3. A year before that, the Thomas Fire burned nearly 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — for a time the state’s largest wildfire — contributing to 23 deaths.
In each blaze, communication becomes difficult because the power goes out.
CPUC’s decision is a step in preventing telecommunication outages during power outages, providing a “critical backup power policy that would protect customers who use landline phones during emergencies,” according to the commission’s independent watchdog group the Public Advocates Office, which is leading the charge.
If adopted, “resiliency” would be defined as “the ability to recover from or adjust to adversity or change through an array of strategies,” including backup power, redundancy, network hardening and preparedness planning.
Implementation would take eight to 18 months.
A staff report accompanying Thursday’s agenda calls out “public safety power shutoffs,” where Southern California Edison and other utilities turn off power to reduce the risk of their equipment starting fires, for having “endangered the lives of customers and first responders.”
Malibu saw several of these shutoffs, primarily on the Cuthbert Circuit in the Point Dume area, in recent months.
“This is especially troubling for the public,” the report continues, “given that, as emphasized by officials from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, ‘when you are responding into an emergency, communications are your lifeline.’”
While noting that 80 percent of calls to 9-1-1 come from wireless devices, the rest are made from landline devices.
Hills and valleys can greatly affect wireless communications, meaning that, for some, during a disaster, a landline is the most robust form of communication — if there’s power.
Providers have staked out various arguments against the proposal. Charter, for example, in addition to arguing the commission has no authority over the “phone” services it offers, including Voice over Internet Protocol, claims the proposal is “misplaced” by shifting “obligations to communications providers that should rightly be borne by electric utilities.”
Comcast argues the proposal “exceeds the commission’s authority,” while Cox argues the rules should be applied only to telephone corporations “that provide mobile telecommunications services, including cellular backhaul, and telecommunications services for first responders.”
SCE says a backup power requirement less than 72 hours makes sense “as there are other resiliency strategies that may be reasonably deployed,” while the California Cable and Telecommunications Association argues a 72-hour mandate “would provide very limited benefits and squander enormous network resources given that very few consumers have backup power sources for in-home equipment required to access wireline services.”
CCTA earlier proposed a resiliency framework to “help ensure uninterrupted service to meet a community’s most critical communications needs during extended power outages.”
The Public Advocates Office issued a statement calling the proposal “a positive step forward,” but said the timeline for implementation is not fast enough.
“With increasing reliance on wireline networks during the COVID-19 pandemic, holding all phone companies accountable for keeping people connected has never been more urgent.”
The meeting starts at 10 a.m. To take part, click here.