With wildfires raging across California this week, much of the state’s Congressional delegation blasted major cellular companies for challenging new regulations meant to ensure cell service stays reliable during fires, power outages and other disasters.
The regulations approved in July by the California Public Utilities Commission require AT&T, Verizon and other cellular service companies to install by next July backup power sources at cell towers and other sites that make up their networks, allowing them to keep running for at least three days during blackouts. The companies are also required to submit “resiliency plans” detailing how they will ensure people can call 911, get emergency alerts and maintain other basic levels of service while the power is out.
Cellular companies say they were already working to ensure service is reliable during disasters, and the commission’s mandates go too far.
A group of major carriers filed a challenge to the regulations last month, asserting that federal law blocks state regulators like the CPUC from imposing them. Proponents of the rules believe the carriers may also seek to strike them down in a lawsuit.
“Wireless carriers will continue to focus on network resiliency – which is an imperative for their businesses and customers – as they have done for decades without regulatory directives,” the companies wrote in their Aug. 17 filing.
The challenge prompted a scathing rebuke Thursday from 20 members of Congress from California, including Reps. Barbara Lee, Ro Khanna, Anna Eshoo, Eric Swalwell and others, who championed the regulations and said it was “unconscionable” for companies to try to block them.
“These safeguards were put in place to help Californians stay connected during wildfires and other emergencies,” their joint statement read. “At a time when nearly every part of our state has been ravaged by wildfires, we would hope that there is swift action to implement these lifesaving protections, not fight against them.”
The mandates are meant to address a problem that for years has dogged emergency management officials and people living in areas at risk from wildfires: Cellular service is often unreliable during blackouts and fires.
People struggled to call 911 or receive alerts telling them to flee during the deadly Wine Country blazes in 2017 and the Camp Fire in 2018, in part because cell towers were damaged, hampering rushed evacuation efforts. Last year, when Pacific Gas and Electric Company intentionally shut off power to reduce the risk of its equipment sparking fires, hundreds of cell sites were knocked out of service, which meant many people in those areas couldn’t get a cell signal.
And around the time cellular companies were filing their challenge last month, Solano County officials said power outages may have kept people in neighborhoods devastated by the Hennessey Fire from receiving evacuation orders. Cellular companies have disputed that claim, saying their networks performed well through the fire.
The public utilities commission has not yet made a decision on the cellular companies’ challenge.
In a response filing, Public Advocate’s Office at the commission argued along with several consumer groups that the CPUC was well within its legal rights to impose the restrictions. Industry-wide standards are necessary, they said, to ensure people have reliable cell service no matter who their carrier is.
Challenging those rules is “outrageous,” said Public Advocate’s Office Director Elizabeth Echols.
Customers, Echols said, “are already doing their part” to prepare for wildfires — many sign up for emergency alerts, study evacuation routes and know to keep their phones charged when conditions are dangerous.
“The utilities, the telephone companies, they have to step up and do their part too,” she said.