Telecoms company representatives – telco, cable and mobile – were grilled for three hours yesterday by CPUC commissioners about their ability to maintain communications capabilities during power outages and other emergencies. And their willingness to provide actionable, real time network status information to officials and the public.
The central issue is whether the California Public Utilities Commission should establish regulations for things like backup power, network resiliency and outage reporting, for voice, text and, perhaps, broadband service. Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen cut to heart of it, asking the eight representatives “would you support this as a regulatory requirement?”.
Three of the mobile companies – AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – were represented by senior operational and engineering executives. Although they didn’t express any great enthusiasm for new regulations, they engaged with questions posed by commissioners and generally gave knowledgable answers about their networks, back up capacity and emergency management procedures.
Verizon sent a lobbyist. He reiterated an early statement by Verizon that it would be happy to provide lots more information about future outages in something like real time, and make it public because our network is so damn good.
AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s execs signed onto that pledge. Mobile networks were a particular focus – 80% of 911 calls are made using mobile phones, according to a CPUC staffer. The objective is to identify and publicise communications gaps, where people can’t call 911 or access evacuation maps on the web. Sprint’s rep was more reticent, but it might not matter if T-Mobile is successful in acquiring the company.
It wasn’t clear whether AT&T’s wireline network was included in the promise. At one point, an AT&T lawyer jumped up and seemed to say no. Instead, he lauded AT&T platoons of lobbyists and public relations people, and their “longstanding” efforts to keep state and local officials informed.
Frontier Communications also sent a corporate lobbyist to the hearing. Not much came of it. She didn’t promise to share detailed or real time outage information, let alone make it public. She did say that only 85% of Frontier’s customers are served by central offices that have back up generators that can keep facilities powered for at least 72 hours. “Facilities further out” in “remote areas” rely on shorter-lived batteries and portable generators.
Translation: the urban systems we got from Verizon are okay, rural communities, not so much.
The three cable companies – Charter Communications, Comcast and Cox – sent regional managers, who typically have a lot of operational responsibility at the local level, but take their marching orders on corporate policy from headquarters. That seemed to be the case yesterday. All three were cordial and, within their field of expertise, knowledgeable enough, but not forthcoming when pressed for information sharing commitments. I’ll get back to you was a frequently heard response. Back up power on cable networks didn’t seem to be as robust as telcos. Comcast’s rep said that all their network devices in the field have back up power, but only 4 to 24 hours worth.