SACRAMENTO – The Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 9 and The Utility Reform Network (TURN) each submitted comments (CWA, TURN) to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) today, calling for new backup power requirements on telecommunications providers across the state and greater transparency around identifying critical facility locations. CWA also called for the full unredacted release of CPUC’s April 2019 Examination of the Local Telecommunications Networks and Related Policies and Practices of AT&T California and Frontier California study.
Nearly 20,000 of the CWA-represented workers in California work for telecommunications companies such as AT&T, AT&T Mobility, Frontier, and Verizon. These frontline technician members are some of the first workers deployed during a natural disaster to make sure that communications networks stay online and accessible to first responders and the public. This provides CWA with unique insight into the challenges of network resiliency and responsiveness during times of crisis and potential recommendations on how to improve provider performance and accountability.
“The loss of communications service during a crisis can mean the difference between life or death, as the 2019 California wildfires showed,” said CWA District 9 Vice President Frank Arce. “That’s why it’s so important that we hold providers accountable during the coronavirus pandemic, and why CWA’s members strongly support the proposal to require providers to have on-site emergency backup power to maintain service following a power outage.”
During the 2019 wildfires, more than half of California’s counties were impacted by network outages. These outages prevented citizens from accessing 9-1-1 and receiving emergency notifications. The US Department of Homeland Security noted in its July 2017 Public Safety Communications Resiliency Report that the addition of battery backups, uninterruptible power systems (UPS), and backup power generators “greatly increases the resiliency of the communication functions and supports critical operations.”
“It is imperative to the safety of millions of Californians that phone companies provide reliable service during disasters,” said TURN executive director Mark Toney. “Many TURN members reported losing phone service during mass power shut-offs last fall, which meant they were unable to receive emergency notifications or call 911. With coronavirus making us more dependent than ever on our phones and the Internet for crucial communications, the need for the California Public Utilities Commission to hold phone companies accountable for keeping customers connected has never been more urgent.”
In addition to urging the CPUC to move forward on requiring providers to have emergency backup power ready, CWA encouraged the Commission to demand greater transparency from providers around mitigation plans in order to ensure that the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and state and local emergency responders are adequately informed about efforts to provide continuity of service. During the October 2019 PG&E power shutoffs, Cal OES officials said that it appeared that providers were utilizing temporary generators, some of which were from out-of-state and not in compliance with standards set by the California Air Resources Board. As a result, equipment was delayed in being connected to the necessary cell sites.
In the comments submitted to CPUC, CWA also called on the Commission to release its April 2019 Examination of the Local Telecommunications Networks and Related Policies and Practices of AT&T California and Frontier California study, for which only an executive summary and certain sections have been shared publicly. The Commission has yet to release chapters on service quality analysis, infrastructure policies and procedures, assessment of safety, redundancy and resiliency of network(s), and the conclusions and recommendations. All of these subjects are directly relevant to the Commission’s current rulemaking in the emergency disaster relief program and the corrective risk management measures the public, state agencies, municipalities and businesses should take to address service quality problems, disinvestments and inadequate network infrastructure.