California's recent power cut, intended to reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic fires, has had an unwelcome side effect. The blackouts have also cut the power of many mobile phone towers and blocked the most important source of communication for many in one way.
"You don't appreciate how important cell phone service is until you lose it," said Chris Ungson, vice president of communications and water policy for the California Public Advocates Office, an independent agency in the state's Public Utilities Commission. "It's not just a matter of inconvenience; it's a matter of public health and safety. It's a lifeline for many, many people."
For years, state and federal regulators have pushed mobile companies to better strengthen their emergency aid networks. The Federal Communications Commission said Monday that it conducted "a comprehensive review of the wireless industry's voluntary commitment to fostering resilient wireless communications during disasters. " to promote the continuity of communication for public safety employees and residents. "
Verizo n, AT&T and other carriers said Monday that they were working to minimize disruptions but could not provide any specific guarantees.
In Paradise, a Sierra-footed building after it was destroyed by fire last year, the combination of power shutdown and unsafe communications causes renewed anxiety on Monday.
Jess Mercer, who completed her drawing class for primary school by flashlight, said that the mobile service was spotty and wireless Internet connections were out in many areas, making many parents and teachers unsure if the school was open.
Some parents used a source of information from the 1900s to stay up to date. "A lot of people tell me they're getting into their cars and trying to get warm with their heaters, and they're listening to the radio," Mercer said. "People are in some way trying to get information."
In Sonoma County, where a major fire caused the evacuation of 180,000 residents over the weekend, not a quarter of the 436 cellphone towers, F.C.C. said Monday.
In nearby Marin County, more than half of the 280 towers were out of service. Most of the power outages were related to the preventive power outages imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's largest utility.
The growing connection between power outages and communication outages stems from the transformative effect of wireless devices, which many people have created as their sole source of telephone service.
Most cell towers have some form of backup power. When they lose power, they resort to batteries. If the batteries run out, the towers generate power from generators, which depend on fuel. These methods can provide power for several days or longer, depending on whether the generators can be refueled.
AT&T said that all cell sites in California had some form of backup power. Verizon said most of the towers were equipped with batteries and generators. T-Mobile said it had built-in generators on its most critical sites, while others had batteries. Sprint said some of the cell sites had built-in generators and that they distributed portable generators to others as quickly as possible.
"Providers invest significant resources to strengthen and cure networks so that they are able to maintain service during emergencies," states a statement from CTIA, the wireless industry's trading group.
There are limits to what carriers are can do when blackout is accompanied by a fire Some generators are inaccessible due to the fires and cannot be refueled In other cases, sites are missing generators due to zoning restrictions.
In 2007, after Hurricane Katrina, the FCC ordered mobile companies to offer at least eight hours of backup support for their towers, but the Office of Administration and Budget rejected the move for procedural reasons, and the commission dropped the plan. It asked the commission to um immediately order mobile companies to offer backup generators and alternative routes in fire areas and flood plains.
"Failure in our emergency communications systems is a life or death case, and it must be addressed immediately," the office wrote. The answers were vague and ambiguous.
"There is a constant pushback from tools," said Ana Maria Johnson, program director at the Public Advocates Office. “They want to do things voluntarily. They must be required to do so. It is imperative that wireless facilities have backup power on site. ”
To some extent, the Public Utilities Commission has placed the responsibility on the public. In a recent report, it noted that wireless customers "may or may not have voice interruptions, depending on the backup installed on cell areas," and said that the commission "does not have rules that require backup power for this type of service."
added that it was "the customer's responsibility to provide the necessary backup power in the home to have functioning telephone service during a downtime."