When intense rains began battering California last December, Nancy Kille’s landline had already started failing. In the Santa Cruz mountains, where she lives, trees and power poles toppled, cutting power and closing roads. Landslides prompted evacuation orders and filled homes with muck. A river rose and engulfed cars.
Kille’s phone trouble started a couple of weeks earlier. She would go anywhere from hours to a couple of days where it wasn’t possible to place calls from her home on a sloping, wooded lot. Much of the small community where she lives usually doesn’t have cell reception, so her landline can feel essential. During the storms, which prompted a federal disaster declaration, Kille heard of two instances where residents needed ambulances but did not have working communication methods to call one.
“If the power goes out and there’s an emergency, it is not just an inconvenience, it can be life-threatening,” she said.
In this part of California, accessible via only a few snaking mountain roads, emergency preparedness is part of life. Three years ago, a fire tore through the area, displacing nearly eighty thousand people and destroying 1,490 buildings. Kille, with her landline, was one of the few residents in her neighborhood who received a call notifying her to evacuate. Other residents had cell phones connected to the internet, she said, which crashed when the power did. This year, when Kille’s landline was struggling, it took seven technician visits, six months, and a complaint to the state utility regulator to get it fixed — but she was intent on keeping the connection.
Modern phone systems generally need electricity to function. For several years, California has had a first-of-its-kind rule requiring three days of backup power at many telecom sites in areas with high fire danger, to help forestall communication outages during emergencies. But companies have not shown they’re fully complying with the requirements, say consumer watchdogs at the state utility commission’s Public Advocates Office who have reviewed confidential versions of company plans.
In many cases, companies have not installed appropriate backup power or provided detailed plans about how they will keep systems online during an emergency, advocates say. Providers like AT&T and T-Mobile, however, say their plans are consistent with state requirements and that they’re committed to providing the needed level of resiliency to keep residents connected.
Compliance concerns from advocates follow years of industry opposition to resiliency requirements. In California, telecommunication companies also spent millions lobbying regulators and the legislature on California issues including potential backup requirements.
Now, advocates say, enforcement is crucial. Climate-worsened disasters are making communication systems more vulnerable to failure, and not only in California. In Maui, thousands of people lost cell service during a devastating wildfire in August, complicating emergency evacuations.
“These are essential services — they are essential to protect human life and to prevent catastrophes, and they need to be reliable,” said Regina Costa, telecom policy director at the Utility Reform Network, a California consumer advocacy group.
“It’s Absolutely Essential”
California first considered backup requirements more than a decade ago, when a state law passed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina required utility regulators to consider reliability standards for phone lines. Instead of instituting any requirements, however, California regulators directed the creation of a “customer education plan” to provide information about backup power at homes and businesses.
Some telecommunication companies have long contended that resiliency requirements — and the costly system upgrades that would likely come along with them — would be detrimental to both their business and to overall reliability, because a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t allow companies to flexibly respond to emergencies.
In 2007, federal officials took up the matter after finding that limited access to power and backup equipment impeded recovery of communication systems after Hurricane Katrina. That year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a rule requiring twenty-four hours of backup power at the central offices of phone carriers and eight hours at cell facilities.
Members of the wireless industry appealed the rule; Sprint wrote that it would cause the company “staggering and irreparable harm.” The fight went to court.
Eventually, the FCC dropped the rule, after the Bush administration found that its reporting requirements would be more expensive and time consuming than the commission projected. In 2015 the FCC required that providers offer consumers the option to purchase backup power for certain communication systems, and in 2016, the FCC signed onto a voluntary industry agreement focused on network resiliency.
The vulnerability of California’s communication systems gained attention once again in 2019, when the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County — the state’s largest wildfire of the year — overlapped with power shutoffs meant to prevent utility equipment from igniting more blazes.
More than half of cell towers in neighboring Marin County were offline at one point, making it difficult for residents to learn about evacuation orders, the trajectory of the fire, or when their power would be restored. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimated that 1.1 million wireless customers were potentially affected, and, according to reports from the FCC, cell tower outages impacted thirty-two counties statewide.
“For too many years, the state and federal governments have relied on the industry to do the right thing voluntarily,” Democratic state senator Mike McGuire told Bay Area National Public Radio station KQED at the time. “And it’s become crystal clear that simply asking them to voluntarily commit to backup power doesn’t work.” McGuire had introduced a bill earlier that year to require backup power at telecom facilities in areas with high threats of fire.
A few months later, the CPUC began discussing resiliency measures for communication providers.
In proceedings at the CPUC, the wireless industry has argued that mandates wouldn’t make their systems more resilient. CTIA, a lobbying group representing the nation’s largest wireless providers, argued in a 2018 filing: “Imposing a rigid set of regulations to address what are often fluid situations could impede, rather than promote, relief efforts.” The group also said that instituting a backup requirement was outside California’s regulatory authority.
The CPUC disagreed; about nine months after the Kincade Fire, regulators created rules requiring seventy-two hours of backup power at cell sites located in certain high fire threat areas, unless such installations were “objectively impossible or infeasible.” Regulators gave companies one year to comply with the rule. In 2021, the commission added the same requirement for facilities owned by wireline providers, including internet companies.
In the six months leading up to the CPUC decision related to wireless providers, AT&T spent roughly $960,000 on state lobbying, including at the CPUC on issues related to resiliency and the McGuire bill. T-Mobile spent more than $200,000 in lobbying, including on those two policies, and Verizon spent about $450,000.
From April 2019 through September 2020, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Comcast, and T-Mobile collectively reported more than $5 million on California lobbying disclosures that included lobbying on the McGuire legislation. AT&T accounted for the majority of that sum, at about $2.6 million, and treated legislative staff for the bill’s coauthors to suite tickets for events like Disney on Ice and a Sacramento Kings basketball game.
In an emailed statement in response to questions on its lobbying activity, an AT&T spokesperson said the company complies with “state laws and regulations for lobbying reporting.” The other companies either did not respond to requests for comment on their lobbying activity or declined to comment.
In 2020, the McGuire bill was put on hold after the CPUC finalized its wireless backup rule.
Ben Levitan, a cellular and wireless consultant who formerly worked at Sprint (now part of T-Mobile) and Verizon, said California’s requirements are costly and unnecessary, because cell towers rarely go down for long periods.
“This is politicians who don’t know what the heck they’re talking about trying to regulate stuff,” he said. “This stuff doesn’t make good business sense.”
Consumer groups like the Utility Reform Network support the CPUC rules. During the Kincade Fire, Costa, the organization’s telecom policy director, was traveling on California’s North Coast, where power shutoffs also took cell towers offline. She remembers parking near a working tower to watch the fire’s progress on her phone, monitoring whether the flames were going to jump the highway that stood between the fire and her home.
“It’s absolutely essential that there’s a requirement for backup power,” she said. “It’s a huge threat to public safety when people can’t get essential information.”
“The Data Has Shown Something Else”
More than two years after wireless companies and wireline providers were supposed to have met the backup requirements, the California Public Advocates Office, a state entity that represents consumers at the utility commission, says companies including T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast do not appear to be following the rules. According to the office, “critical details’’ are lacking from the companies’ plans to show compliance with the requirement.
“These companies are claiming that they are meeting it,” said Ana Maria Johnson, a program manager in the communications and water policy branch at the Public Advocates Office. “The data has shown something else.”
Many details of the resiliency plans that telecommunication providers submit to regulators are confidential, but the Public Advocates Office has access to nonredacted versions. In official, written protests submitted by the office, Johnson lays out concerns with companies’ reliance on portable generators, which must be moved to facilities in the event of an emergency, and fuel systems that require trucks to reach generators to refill their store of gas or diesel.
In some circumstances, advocates say, companies plan to refuel generators to keep them running for seventy-two hours, but have not provided details about where refueling trucks are located or how quickly they can travel to generators across the state, especially those in remote and difficult-to-navigate areas.
In a letter of protest, the Public Advocates Office argues that in a large-scale outage, the number of sites for which Comcast plans to use mobile generators will exceed the number of generators to which Comcast has access. In an email to us, a Comcast spokesperson said the company is now using battery backup in certain high-fire threat areas.
Verizon did not respond to emailed questions about the backup requirement or the company’s compliance with it. An AT&T spokesperson, in an email, said that “AT&T’s disaster response plan is consistent” with CPUC decisions for wireless and wireline networks. A T-Mobile spokesperson, in an email, said the company remains “committed to meeting our obligations” under the California requirements.
Wireless providers are scheduled to submit their next annual plans by late January and wireline providers submit new plans in August. “We hope to see improvement in the level of detail and support of information the companies provide to prove whether they meet the 72-hours of backup power requirements, but it is yet to be seen,” Johnson at the Public Advocates Office said in an email.
California regulators have not pursued any formal enforcement actions against the companies that fall under the requirement. If regulators notice “insufficiencies” in information that carriers have provided about backup, the CPUC will discuss the matter with the carrier directly to ensure reliable service, a spokesperson for the commission said in an email to us.
Regulators have had “multiple discussions” with carriers, the spokesperson said in a follow-up email, but have not taken “formal enforcement action.”
“People Could Die”
Since California’s backup rules were put in place, outages have continued.
In one of its protest letters, the Public Advocates Office pointed to the aftermath of a magnitude 6.4 earthquake in Northern California in 2022 — which knocked out power and led to service outages — as an indication that even cell sites with permanent generators can be vulnerable to disruption. The state of affairs creates a dangerous situation for vulnerable groups, like the elderly or those who cannot move around easily on their own.
“The most vulnerable populations are the most at risk,” said Jacob Zarefsky, an attorney fellow focused on disaster resilience at Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income people.
Kille is in her seventies. She writes mystery novels and lives on a fixed income. During the winter storms, she says she spent thousands of dollars to fuel her personal generator. Others in Santa Cruz County went days or weeks without access to fuel.
“We need to have backup power so that we’re able to communicate during power outages,” she said. “I mean, people could die.”
Contingencies for loss of communication exist for emergency personnel, like satellite phones (which Kille says some of her neighbors have). But the lack of such backup for civilians is a known gap in emergency response, said Monique Wheeler, an adjunct professor of emergency and disaster management at Georgetown University.
Last year, the FCC created some mandatory resiliency measures for wireless providers, such as requiring them to share equipment and adopt other types of mutual aid. In October, the commission also discussed emergency communications at an open meeting. California is the first state that appears to have established a requirement for backup power.
It’s not the only state facing challenges to keep communication systems running. As wildfires burned through Maui this year, many peoples’ cell phones stopped working. An influx of calls jammed emergency services, and power outages and damage to cell towers cut phone service. This resulted in a “catastrophic communications failure,” according to one state senator, which made it even more difficult for people to evacuate.
Dimitris Mavrakis, an expert in telecom network infrastructure and senior research director at ABI Research, agreed with industry that backup is a costly measure for hypothetical emergencies. But he said it’s also prudent.
“These diesel generators or batteries may be there unused forever,” he said. “But in cases where these disasters happen, then yes, they are critical.” Installing them is also feasible, though it’s not foolproof, according to Mavrakis, who is also a volunteer firefighter.
This year, after her difficulties with her home phone, Kille upgraded from dial-up to high-speed internet. She now uses her cell phone for more calls. But she’s keeping her landline.
“I maintain it for emergencies,” she said. “Because you can’t count on having power.”