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Blackouts that cut cell service aren't just annoying, they're dangerous

Commentary: California may require wireless carriers to keep towers operating during a power outage. Good.

oakland-cell-phone-tower

For both communication and information, wireless service during a power outage is incredibly important.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As deadly wildfires raged in California last year, utilities across the state gave residents a taste of a dystopian future. To prevent their power lines from causing new blazes again -- in 2018, equipment from Northern California utility PG&E sparked the most destructive fire in the state's history -- the companies instituted Public Safety Power Shutoff programs. That allowed them to purposefully plunge entire cities into darkness, sometimes for as long as a week.

More than 2 million Californians fumed, and government officials questioned whether the shutoffs were really necessary, even as the utilities insisted the blackouts could be a fact of life during fire season for the next decade. It quickly became clear that the shutoffs had serious consequences outside of spoiled food in refrigerators. When cellphone towers in shutoff areas became either overloaded or were offline completely, people lost a vital way to get emergency alerts. For Californians without landlines at home -- a number as high as 85 percent according to AT&T -- that's a big problem. 

Fortunately, state officials have noticed. Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission said it'll spend the next few months deciding whether wireless carriers will be required, under penalty of fines, to provide backup power for their towers during blackouts so people's mobile phones can keep working.

I welcome this news, because public safety is at stake. I know firsthand.

A double blackout

Just before Halloween, I lost power for three days at my Oakland home. At first the outage was more inconvenient than anything else, especially in comparison to the people who lost their homes to the flames. It's boring in a dark house after sunset, and the deserted streets had a creepy "before a zombie attack" feel. OK, the sight of the Milky Way stretching across the sky above the East Bay was beautiful, but all I wanted was electricity. 

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Normally, the Mormon Temple near my Oakland neighborhood is visible from miles around. Not so during a blackout.

Ray Chavez/Getty Images

The blackout also brought a shock. While I knew I wouldn't have Wi-Fi, I didn't expect I'd get barely any signal on my phone. By the second night in the dark, I realized just how disconcerting both a power and an information blackout are. I awoke about 2 a.m. to a strong smell of smoke wafting into my bedroom. When I had gone to bed, there were no reported fires nearby. But when the wind is shaking the tree branches outside, anything can happen two hours later.

My first thought was I'd finally have to grab my go bag and put my disaster plan of a quick getaway into action. Other than a helicopter circling overhead, I couldn't see or hear anything unusual outside. But with no landline or working TV, and my battery-powered radio stashed in a box downstairs, I had only my phone to quickly confirm whether evacuation was necessary. Wildfires can move incredibly fast -- in the October 2017 Tubbs Fire, residents of Santa Rosa, California, had only minutes to flee before entire neighborhoods were incinerated. I didn't want to be in that position.

For what felt like an eternity, but was probably only five minutes, my phone showed no bars. That meant no way to read tweets from the Oakland police or fire department or receive Wireless Emergency Alerts. (Yes, you can turn the alerts off, but I keep mine on for situations like this.) Groggy and confused, I felt a mix of bewilderment and fear.

Finally, after refreshing countless times, I got just enough of a signal to see posts on Nextdoor saying the smoke was blowing in from a blaze nearby in Vallejo, and that no new fires had started in Oakland. Yes, a site I mock far more than take seriously (I relish tweets from Best of Next Door in particular) had calmed my momentary concern. I went back to sleep, relief replacing worry. Two days later, the power was back and I moved that emergency radio to a more accessible place.

Something has to give

There are a lot of reasons to ask if the PG&E shutoffs are the right thing to do. And I suppose the better public policy question is whether the state should concentrate on setting standards for the blackouts (if they have to come) and forcing PG&E and other utilities to make their equipment fireproof. As a person without kids to get to school or aging parents to care for, I was only inconvenienced during the blackouts. But others weren't so lucky. Local businesses like grocery stores and restaurants, some of which are independent and locally owned, lost billions of dollars and hourly workers lost pay for the forced time off. 

More frightening is the chance that the blackouts could make things worse. During the Tubbs Fire, Sonoma County officials didn't send emergency alerts to phones in areas where the fire was spreading, leaving some residents with no warning that they needed to evacuate. When that fire was finally extinguished, 22 people had died and 5,643 structures had been destroyed. Local governments likely won't make that mistake again, but it won't matter in a blacked-out home with no wireless service. No texts or tweets means no way to get life-saving information. Firefighters and first responders also depend on wireless networks to do their jobs, as was clear last year when Verizon throttled data for crews battling the Mendocino Complex Fire.

During the Jan. 23 meeting, the Public Utilities Commission suggested forcing the state's wireless providers like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile to have 72 hours of backup power for towers in high-risk fire areas. The carriers may resist any strong mandates -- the California Cable & Telecommunications Association told the San Francisco Chronicle there were "significant, real-world challenges" to installing generators -- but a solution is needed. Because lives could depend on getting a text.

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