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Ensure reliable cell phone coverage during wildfires

California can’t go another year without ensuring reliable cellphone coverage in the event of a wildfire or a PG&E power shutoff.

State Sen. Steve Glazer has the solution: The Orinda Democrat is proposing legislation requiring mobile phone companies provide a minimum of 72 hours of battery back-up for all cellphone towers.

It’s long overdue.

During wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters, wireless networks are an essential means of communication for emergency alerts, 911 calls, first responders and the public. Cellphones are as critical today as land lines were a generation ago. But the systems don’t work without power.

During the Kincade Fire and recent PG&E power shutdowns, the FCC later revealed, nearly 900 of the state’s cell sites were not operating. The Bay Area News Group’s Lisa Krieger reported that in Marin County, more than half — 57.1 percent — of sites weren’t working. Sonoma County, where the Kincaid fire broke out, lost 17 percent of its sites. Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Napa, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties lost 22.5 percent, 11.4 percent, 19.2 percent, 11.4 percent and 2.1 percent of sites, respectively.

It’s unacceptable.

Californians cannot trust PG&E to conduct the maintenance necessary to reduce the risk of wildfires before next season. Nor is it likely that the utility will back off its strategy of conducting public safety power shutdowns during high-risk weather conditions.

Glazer plans to offer his legislation as an urgency bill, meaning it would take effect immediately after enactment.

It would require upgrades that should have been done a decade ago. Responsible cellphone companies should not need a state law to prepare for emergencies. The state’s four major providers — AT&T, T-mobile, Sprint and Verizon — should have acted years ago to ensure that Californians’ lives are not put at unnecessary risk. But they haven’t.

The state Public Utilities Commission has known for years about the problem. The state considered imposing standards as early as 2007 but did not implement them.

The Federal Communications Commission went as far as to order carriers to install eight hours of backup power at all cell sites and 24 hours of backup power at central switching facilities. But the wireless industry fought off that effort, and neither the FCC nor Congress has acted to fix what should be a high-priority issue.

Meanwhile, the need to protect emergency cellphone communications keeps growing. Motorola in 1973 became the first company to mass produce handheld mobile phones. By 1985 there were 340,213 subscribers in the United States. Ten years later that number had jumped to 33.7 million. Today, there are well over 300 million users, and only 6 percent of California residents still rely on landline phones. Emergency services providers say that 80 percent of 911 calls come from wireless phones.

California’s cellphone providers have failed to adequately prepare for emergencies. Glazer’s legislation would ensure that future natural disasters don’t result in widespread communications blackouts.


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