California examines wildfire blackout emergency communications

Representatives from AT&T and Verizon are scheduled to testify before California state lawmakers today about the effect of widespread blackouts last October, when electricity companies implemented a power shutoff to prevent wildfires during a fierce windstorm.

The blackout took 874 cell towers offline, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. This meant some mobile phone users couldn't receive emergency notifications or call emergency services.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, the region’s largest mobile network operators, provided advance comments to the legislative committee saying their major telecommunication hubs largely have on-site backup power for between 48 hours and 72 hours. However, smaller sites rely on mobile generators, but electric companies can warn them about blackouts just two hours ahead of time, which can mean it is challenging to get mobile generators in place and ensure they are adequately fuelled.

Steven Maviglio, a spokesperson for AT&T, commented, “We are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in our network resiliency to address these new challenges and will continue to work to ensure our customers have the connectivity they need.”

State officials are still developing regulations for a 2019 law that requires telecommunications companies to report large outages to the Office of Emergency Services within one hour of discovering them.