Tag Archives: emergencyservices

Broadband service failed in 2017 California firestorm, mobile hit worst

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One of the big questions to answer about the mega fire still tearing through Shasta County this morning is how do you warn people? Broadband and other high tech tools failed in last year’s fires. Instead, people were saved the old fashioned way: a knock on the door or the smell of smoke.

Mobile service went down more often than any other kind of broadband service during 2017’s northern California firestorm, but cable, telco and fixed wireless systems also took a severe beating. Satellite Internet service had the highest survivability rate. That’s one conclusion drawn from a wide survey of people in and around Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties during an horrific wildfire in October 2017.

Mobile broadband carriers had an 88% failure rate – i.e. people “lost some to all service”. Broadband service from Comcast was down for 73% of customers, while 69% of AT&T and Frontier broadband subscribers experienced outages.

One caveat: the survey did not break AT&T subscribers out by type of service. Comparing total numbers, and also the voice telephone service data collected, it’s a fair conclusion that most of the 700 people who ticked the AT&T Internet service box are landline customers. So that’s how I categorised them, but I’m sure that some mobile customers are mixed in.

DSL resellers – companies that lease copper lines from AT&T or Frontier, add some equipment and provide semi-independent Internet access – only had a 43% failure rate. But that doesn’t mean they did better than the big guys – resellers concentrate their service in cities and towns, and most of the fire damage was in exurban and rural areas. If rural residents can’t buy the service, then they can’t lose it either.

One common problem that all the terrestrial companies in the counties have is that AT&T is pretty much the only middle mile game in town, according to the report. So if an AT&T inter-city line is damaged, all the ISPs using it suffer.

Satellite Internet service, which had a 26% failure rate, isn’t affected by AT&T’s backhaul outages. But it does share one weak link with all the others: electricity. If your power (or your provider’s) goes out and there’s no back up, you don’t have Internet service either. Smoke shouldn’t have been a problem for satellite or other wireless services – any smoke that’s thick enough to block signals is too thick to breath. No one should have been sitting at home trying to get on the Internet at that point.

The data was collected by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. More than 3,700 people filled out an online survey. It wasn’t a scientifically selected sample, but just taken for what it is, it’s a significant number of responses.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

Life and death alerts are low tech/no tech, California firestorm study shows

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Social media and other online services were not the way people received lifesaving warnings when a firestorm tore through three northern California counties last year. Nearly all were alerted to evacuate via phone or personal contact, or by their own eyes, ears and noses.

That’s a top line read of the data from a study just published by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium. They ran an online survey and 3,700 people responded, nearly all of them from the hardest hit counties of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. The number is significant as it stands, even if it wasn’t a scientifically selected sample.

Given that some people had “literally seconds” to leave their homes in the face of a wall of fire that moved at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, the most important question is “how did you receive warning/notice to evacuate?” About a quarter got no warning at all – they figured it out themselves – and about a third were alerted by phone calls of various kinds. Nearly a quarter got a boots-on-the-ground warning – someone banged on their door or shouted out to them. Most of the rest checked other, and closer inspection shows nearly all of those responses are also variations on phone, physical or smell-the-smoke alerts.

The Internet accounted for very few of the time-critical messages. Of the more than 1,600 evacuees who responded, only 11 credited online sources for the warning: five people mentioned Facebook, four said Nextdoor and two saw notices on public agency websites. Even in those cases, most already knew something was going on. Radio and TV – ancient compared to the Internet, but newer tech than phones or feet – were almost as insignificant.

Across those three counties, 78% of respondents said they lost “some to all” of their cellular voice and data service, while 66% reported the same for wireline phones. Just looking at Internet connectivity, of whatever sort, 69% said they lost “some to all” of it.

There’s no mystery about the cause. The fires burned countless utility poles (some argue blazes were started by electric lines mounted on those poles) and more than “340 cell sites were completely destroyed or damaged”. When infrastructure goes up in smoke, service disappears too.

The report is largely quantitative and doesn’t point any particular fingers of blame, noting “the severity of the 2017 wildfires was unpredictable”.

North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium Telecommunications Outage Report: Northern California Firestorm 2017, released 10 May 2018.
Report Appendices, released 10 May 2018.
More information from the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.