(TNS) — When Stephanie Yamkovenko woke up in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Oct. 10, her power was out — and so was her cell phone service. It was in the midst of PG&E’s unprecedented power outages that cut electricity to millions of customers across Northern California.
When her husband left for the office, she was alone at home ,where she sometimes works and couldn’t reach him. Her neighbor, who has an AT&T landline, couldn’t connect either. Neither could other neighbors with Verizon cell service.
“We were completely cut off,” she said. “It was a really uncomfortable feeling.”
Yamkovenko, who has lived in the small San Mateo County community of Sky Londa for 1½ years, said wind often knocks down lines, causing outages. Those never knocked out cell service, though, she said. She expected the power shut-offs to be inconvenient, but didn’t think she’d be cut off from communication.
“I really just want cell carriers and PG&E to know this is a huge problem and very dangerous if we’re doing more shut-offs in the future,” Yamkovenko said.
Residents using all the major carriers — T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon — from Sonoma to Oakland and Orinda to Sky Londa reported that they lost service during PG&E’s power outages last week. Research group OpenSignal said more than 90% of subscribers to those big carriers stayed connected to high-speed cell networks in urban areas, although rural areas may have fared worse. Regardless of the numbers, for those who lost connections as well as power, it added to their feelings of isolation and fear that in an emergency they wouldn’t be able to reach loved ones or call 911.
Jackie Berkman, a resident of Montclair in the Oakland hills, said it was “extremely dangerous” to be so completely cut off during the shut-off. She has AT&T and her husband Verizon; neither got signal during the outage.
“It was frightening for me thinking about what could possibly happen. But thinking about someone who had a medical condition or didn’t have a car, that’s even more isolating,” Berkman said. “What if there was an accident, someone had a heart attack, and needed to get to the emergency room or needed help — there was no way to contact anyone.”
Government bodies, PG&E, and cell phone carriers said they did their best to prepare for unprecedented outages with backup generator and mobile cell sites. PG&E spokesman Danny Boyle said the company would make “every effort” to reach out to critical service providers, including cell phone carriers, before an outage. But after reports of less than perfect service, companies didn’t respond to specific questions about which cell towers failed and why.
A “relatively small” number of T-Mobile sites were down during the outage, spokesman Joel Rushing said, but he declined to give the exact number and locations. Company technicians restored sites as power was switched back on, he said.
Rushing said T-Mobile has permanent generators in key cell sites and battery backups at others. During the outage, the company deployed a fleet of portable, temporary generators as needed to get sites back up and running.
“We understand that service disruptions are an inconvenience to our customers, and our priority is to keep our customers connected,” Rushing said.
Verizon spokeswoman Jeannine Brew Braggs said Friday the company kept at least 97% of its sites serving customers during the outage.
“We have made significant investments to ensure that whenever feasible there is backup power at each critical site,” she said. “Our teams were in the field ensuring that backup power continued to allow our cell sites to serve our customers.”
“Like all PG&E customers, we are also affected by this power shutdown,” AT&T spokesman Vince Bitong said. The company’s network did not experience much degradation of service, he said.
Before the power outage began, Bitong said, AT&T deployed resources from other states to support customers and public safety, including staging hundreds of additional generators and equipment, and actively refueled generators. During the outage, the company provided unlimited calls, texts and data and waived overage charges to customers in affected areas.
AT&T didn’t respond to inquiries Thursday about which cell towers were down, why, and what measures the companies were taking to prevent a repeat.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates carriers, received reports of service disruptions at a small percentage of cell sites, a spokeswoman said in an email. But she pointed out that a downed cell site doesn’t necessarily mean the area loses coverage, because customers might be able to connect to other towers.
The commission said it “is working closely with wireless service providers to receive timely updates on both the network outages caused by the power shut-offs and the steps that providers are taking to restore service.”
“This is a priority for us as it’s critical that consumers have access to reliable communications services, especially the ability to reach 911.”
Last month, the FCC asked five major cell phone carriers in California how they were prepared for outages amid criticism of failed service during past disasters. In filings, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular said they had rechargeable built-in or mobile generators to provide backup power at most towers and mobile cell sites ready to roll out.
Backup power would last anywhere from seven hours for Sprint up to 72 hours for Verizon to a max of 120 hours for AT&T. If an outage lasts longer — like last week’s shut-off that could have stretched out for five days — companies can refuel the backup generators.
But if there is actually a wildfire, companies said in federal filings they can’t guarantee access to cell towers to recharge batteries and provide service.
Other communications providers were hit harder by the shut-offs. Comcast, which provides broadband internet and phone service, reported that its network centers were down in every area affected by an outage.
“The honest answer is we require electricity just like everyone else. When that source gets cut off, we’re cut off,” spokeswoman Joan Hammel said.
Either customers lost service because their home lost power or because they were connected to a network center that lost power even if they still had electricity at their home, Hammel said. Comcast doesn’t have the technology yet to determine where the source of the problem is, she said.
“We don’t have those insights yet,” Hammel said.
The California Public Utilities Commission, whose public advocate’s office criticized companies in court filings for not providing service during past disasters, said Tuesday it is analyzing data on the impact of the outages. Spokesman Christopher Chow said the agency requires companies to follow an August mandate to keep service and provide support to customers who experience a housing or financial crisis because of a disaster if the governor or president declares an emergency.
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