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

Commentary: If landlines are to die, wireless phones need to be just as reliable in emergencies, even during a forced blackout.

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- 05:44
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For both communication and information, wireless service during a power outage is incredibly important.

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This story is part of Road Trip 2020, CNET's series on how we're preparing now for what could come next.

It's wildfire season again in California as the second and third largest blazes in the state's history continue to burn. More than a thousand structures across 10 counties have been destroyed and (so far) five people have died as hazardous smoke blanketed the more populous parts of the Bay Area for weeks. But so far at least, Northern California utility PG&E hasn't had to institute Public Safety Power Shutoff programs. I hope that lasts.

The programs, which are about as dystopian as they sound, were a fact of life across the state during fire season last year. To prevent its power lines from sparking wildfires during windy conditions -- PG&E equipment caused the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in the state's history -- the public company purposefully plunged entire cities into darkness, sometimes for as long as a week. (The state's other giant utility, Southern California Edison, conducted similar shutoff programs.)

Millions of 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. And 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 offline completely, people lost a vital way to get emergency alerts or call 911. For Californians without landline at home -- a number as high as 85%, according to AT&T -- that's a big problem. 

I know firsthand.

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A double blackout

Just before Halloween last year, 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. Outside of reading by flashlight, there's not much to do in a dark house after sunset, and the deserted roads without the glow of streetlights felt like zombies were ready to attack. OK, the sight of the Milky Way stretching across the sky above the East Bay was beautiful, but all I wanted was electricity. 

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 with strong gusts shaking the tree branches outside, anything can happen two hours later.

My first thought was I'd finally have to get my go-bag, grab the dog 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. Yes, police will sweep through a neighborhood under evacuation order to warn residents, but I want to leave before that happens.

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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

With no landline or working TV and my battery-powered radio unwisely stashed in a box, I had only my phone to quickly confirm whether evacuation was necessary. Wildfires can move incredibly fast -- the Camp Fire spread at the equivalent of one football field every second -- and in the 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, I had no bars. That meant no way to read tweets from the Oakland police or fire departments or receive Wireless Emergency Alerts. (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 that the smoke was blowing in from the Glencove fire nearby in Vallejo and that no new fires had started in Oakland. Ironically, 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. The next morning  I moved that emergency radio to a more accessible place and two days later, the power was back. 

Something has to give

There are a lot of reasons to ask if the shutoffs are the right thing to do. As a person without kids to get to school or ageing parents to care for, I was only inconvenienced. 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 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 were 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.

State officials have noticed. In January, the California Public Utilities Commission said it will consider requiring wireless carriers to provide as much as 72 hours of backup power for their towers during blackouts or face possible fines. If such requirements do come to pass, carriers like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile will resist any strong mandates -- the California Cable & Telecommunications Association told the San Francisco Chronicle there were "significant, real-world challenges" to installing generators. 

Generators at cell towers may not be the best fix, and they'd likely bring problems of their own. But as landlines continue to disappear, wireless networks need to be reliable, even during a blackout. Obviously, if a network is destroyed once a disaster happens, that's another story. But I'm talking about that crucial period before a hurricane, fire, or blizzard hits. Residents need to be able to call emergency services and governments need a way to send alerts that get people out of harm's way as a disaster is approaching. Because lives could depend on getting a text.