Tag Archives: psps

FCC wants to allow cell sites to grow 30 feet in any direction, without meaningful local review

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

Marina cell sites 625

Local governments will have to automatically permit expansions of cell sites and other wireless facilities beyond currently approved boundaries, if the Federal Communications Commission approves a draft of new wireless facilities regulations. As it all but certainly will – the changes to existing wireless permitting rules are part of a bundle of significant changes to telecommunications policy that the republican-majority FCC has queued up for a vote just ahead of the November election.

As the rules stand now, local governments “may not deny, and shall approve” within 60 days modifications to existing wireless sites that are outside of the public right of way so long as the changes “do not substantially change the physical dimensions of the structure”. Missing the deadline means that the permit is “deemed granted”.

Going outside of existing site boundaries is considered to be a substantial change and local governments are allowed some discretion and longer review times to decide whether or not to issue permit for it.

No longer.

As the FCC wants to redefine it, construction or excavation that’s within 30 feet of an existing site’s boundary is not substantial – it’s “sufficiently modest”, as the draft puts it – and would likewise fall under the “may not deny, and shall approve” mandate, with a 60-day “deemed granted” shot clock.

The primary motivation for the change is the changing nature of wireless sites. More equipment is needed to support more co-located carriers and new technology, particularly 5G technology, the FCC’s draft says.

It’s the second time this year that the FCC has ratcheted down local authority over wireless permits on private property. California cities have already taken the FCC to court over it.

California law is also moving in the same direction. The California legislature approved and governor Gavin Newsom signed, a bill that allows back up generators to be installed within 100 feet of an existing macro tower or base station. Cities and counties effectively have no say over the matter and such construction is exempt from California environmental quality act (CEQA) review.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the draft at their 27 October 2020 meeting.

Mobile carriers get a three year exemption from environmental reviews and local restrictions on emergency generators in California

by Steve Blum • , , ,


Emergency power generators installed near macro cell sites everywhere in California won’t have to go through a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and must be approved by local governments within 60 days if the paperwork is in order, under a bill just signed into law by governor Gavin Newsom. This exemption begins on January 1, 2021 and expires three years later, unless the legislature extends it.

Assembly bill 2421, carried by Bill Quirk (D – Alameda), says that “an emergency standby generator that serves a macro cell site as a permitted use and requires a local agency to review a permit request to install an emergency standby generator on an administrative, nondiscretionary basis”, if it meets certain requirements, according to the bill analysis prepared by the senate’s governance and finance committee. A city or county has 60 days to act on an application, assuming it’s complete. If the deadline is missed, the permit is automatically “deemed approved” and the applicant – mobile carrier or cell site company – can go ahead and install the generator without further permission.

A generator, including a fuel tank up to 300 gallons, can be as big as 250 cubic feet – think of a box 10 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet – and can be as far away as 100 feet from an existing macro tower or base station. Generators or other power supplies intended for small cells, DAS or rooftop sites aren’t included in the exemption – local governments retain discretionary authority over those.

Given the continuing problem of wildfires and power shut offs, and the California Public Utilities Commission’s new back up power requirements for wireless operators, AB 2421 had a smooth ride. It received broad, bipartisan support in the legislature and only a smattering of concerns from lobbyists for cities and counties, which usually oppose such exemptions. The only significant opposition came from the Communications Workers of America union, which cited vague concerns about “the long-term health of the communications grid”. It’s worth noting that unions are notorious for using – abusing – CEQA to block projects when they don’t get a big enough piece of the action.

As California burns, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile fight emergency obligations

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Woolsey fire crew 625

Mobile carriers beat back a legislative attempt to impose disaster readiness obligations on them last week, and challenged “resiliency” rules approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in July.

Senate bill 431, authored by Mike McGuire (D – Sonoma), died in the assembly appropriations committee last week. No reason was given, but the primary opposition came from the lobbying front organisation used by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, with cable industry lobbyists close behind. The bill would have directed the CPUC to require 72-hour power backup capability at cell sites, where feasible. It also included relatively trivial back up power obligations for wireline companies, which were the remnants of tougher rules that displeased telco and cable lobbyists.

Although specific statutory authority is always useful to state agencies, the CPUC didn’t wait for it. Under its new resiliency rules, wireless companies – mobile carriers particularly, but perhaps also others – have to maintain 72 hours of backup power and provide customers with “the ability to receive emergency alerts and notification” during disasters and power cuts, including ”basic Internet browsing".

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and their lobbyists appealed that decision last week, asking the CPUC to reconsider it. They claim, as they have all along, that mandatory state disaster readiness rules are “preempted by federal law”…

Congress gave the FCC – not this Commission – jurisdiction over decisions about how, where, and for what duration wireless services are provided. The Decision impinges on the FCC’s exclusive domain.

That exclusive domain includes pretty much everything having to do with mobile networks, the carriers argue. They also claim that because broadband is an “information” service, per the FCC’s network neutrality ruling, the CPUC has no authority over it, either. That’s very much in dispute, though – the California legislature took the position that since it’s not a “telecommunications” service, it’s in their domain and not the FCC’s.

That question is now in the hands of a federal judge in Sacramento. The CPUC’s authority to impose emergency preparedness requirements on telecoms companies is also likely to be decided by in a federal court. There’s little chance that the CPUC will grant the mobile industry’s “application for rehearing”, but filing it is the first procedural step on the path to a legal challenge.

It’s not just about 911. Twitter is emergency communication too, CPUC decides

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

In emergencies, broadband service is as important for connecting people to lifesaving information as telephone service is for reaching 911 centers. That’s effectively what the California Public Utilities Commission decided yesterday when it unanimously approved disaster preparedness requirements for wireless companies.

Those new rules require wireless companies to make sure their networks stay up for at least 72 hours after electric service goes down. The capabilities they have to maintain for their customers include “the ability to receive emergency alerts and notification”, which isn’t limited to reverse 911 calls, and “basic internet browsing during a disaster or commercial power outage”.

That’s because social media and other real time communication delivered via the Internet are integral to communications during an emergency, such as the wildfires that have swept through California in the past few years, commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves explained…

We’re not just talking about the ability to call 911. We’re talking about the ability to receive those alerts. Just as we sit here, I received an alert from the governor’s new order and how it implicates Sacramento County, on covid. Having all the social media networks that are used for providing customers and Californians this information – as you know, during many of the events, Twitter was used as a main source of information – so, a basic necessity for that Internet data service is such a key component. And it’s something that we’re going to, I’m sure, have to monitor to ensure that is provided to all Californians during these disasters and emergency times.

Where the rules go from here is an open question. Mobile carriers claim that the CPUC has no authority to impose network management requirements, because federal law gives that job to the Federal Communications Commission. The CPUC’s response is that states have broad authority when public safety is involved, and there’s nothing in federal law that preempts that power just because wireless telecommunications are involved.

The plain language of the new back up power and network resiliency requirements is not limited to mobile carriers, although the context of the decision is. Whether wireless Internet service providers – WISPs – will also have to comply, and what the corresponding obligations for wireline companies will be are also questions left for later.

Nothing guaranteed in disasters warning added to wireless resiliency plan as CPUC preps to vote

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

“There are certain disasters where it will be impossible to maintain wireless service, including during extended commercial power outages”, according to a draft decision set for a vote tomorrow by the California Public Utilities Commission. The revised version of emergency preparedness rules for “facilities-based wireless providers” proposed by CPUC president Marybel Batjer was posted on Monday, after reviewing dozens of comments submitted by a wide range of companies, industry lobbyists, consumer groups and others.

The original version of Batjer’s proposed decision obligated mobile carriers and, arguably, any other company offering wireless telecoms services to install back up generators, unless “objectively impossible”, at most facilities, and maintain a basic level of service during disasters, including “access to Internet browsing for emergency notices”. It still does that, but it now acknowledges that 100% coverage, 100% of the time regardless of circumstances isn’t going to happen in the real world.

The revision also requires wireless providers to “identify the basis” for claiming that it’s impossible to install back up power at a particular location, and “discuss actions being taken” to “mitigate service loss”.

Otherwise, the revised draft mostly polishes up some of the language in the first draft, and adds some additional case law support for its conclusions, particularly the fundamental finding that the CPUC has the authority to do what it proposes to do.

The response from telecommunications companies can be summed up as you can’t do that to us. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and the Sacramento lobbying front organisation for the cable industry, among others, argued in comments submitted earlier this month that the CPUC doesn’t have authority to impose network management obligations on wireless carriers, or wireline companies, such as cable operators, that it doesn’t otherwise regulate.

“The Commission does not have jurisdiction to mandate the provision of interstate, information services such as internet browsing”, Verizon wrote in its comments. AT&T claimed that “the proposed decision regulates in a field that is exclusively federal”. T-Mobile and the lobbyists deployed by Comcast, Charter Communications and other cable operators sang the same song.

The Wireless Industry Association (WIA), a lobbying organisation for tower owners, construction companies and others who provide infrastructure rather than the service that rides on it, didn’t get the clarification it requested. Pointing out, as I did, that it uses mobile carriers as examples but doesn’t explicitly limit its definition of wireless providers to them, the WIA asked the CPUC to “clarify” that back up power requirements only apply to “macro cell sites”.

No dice. The revised draft passed up the opportunity to narrow the scope of its disaster readiness requirements. It can still be read as applying to wireless Internet service providers (WISPs), at least under certain circumstances, and maybe always.

CPUC “wireless resiliency” plan targets mobile carriers, doesn’t exempt WISPs

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc fire threat map 11jun2020

Click for the interactive fire threat map.

Mobile carriers – AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile – will have to install emergency generators at their cell sites in high fire danger areas, if the California Public Utilities Commission approves a draft decision offered last week by president Marybel Batjer. They’ll also have to meet other requirements intended to insure “wireless resiliency” during emergencies, natural or man-made, including public safety power shut-offs.

The proposed rules would apply to “facilities-based wireless providers” and require them “to maintain a minimum level of service and coverage to provide access to 911, 211, to receive emergency notifications, and access web browsing for emergency notices”.

As it’s commonly used in the industry, and by the CPUC when it refers to “broadband providers”, “facility-based” is a term that includes fixed wireless Internet service providers (WISPs). The hundred-plus page draft doesn’t explicitly limit its definition of facilities-based wireless providers to mobile carriers, although the context clearly does. There’s no mention of WISPs and the legalese leans heavily on the CPUC’s authority over telephone service, even to the point of anachronistically asserting “the public has an expectation that they will hear a dial tone on their wireless device”.

On the other hand, if the intent was to apply the rules specifically to mobile carriers – a jurisdictionally fraught notion – it would have been relatively simple to do so. Instead, the draft cites the CPUC’s role in regulating 911 services (which can be delivered via mobile and VoIP technology), issuing licenses – certificates of public convenience and necessity (CPCNs) – to telecoms companies of all kinds, and its “broad jurisdiction” over “other communications utilities”.

Going forward, it could be argued that a WISP that holds a CPCN or offers VoIP service – or maybe just provides “web browsing for emergency notices” – also must meet wireless resiliency standards. There’s no clear authority for the CPUC to regulate WISPs as such, and it hasn’t done so. The proposed decision pushes further into the grey area, though.

More clarity could be on the way. Senate bill 1058 would extend emergency service obligations to “every Internet service provider” in California. We’ll know later this week whether Californian legislative leaders deem it worthy of consideration by the full senate. And the CPUC is just getting started. The proposed wireless resiliency order says a future commission decision “will consider promulgating resiliency requirements for other telecommunications providers”.

Wireless resiliency, according to the draft, means…

The ability to recover from or adjust to adversity or change through an array of strategies including, but not limited to: backup power, redundancy, network hardening, temporary facilities, communication and coordination with other utilities, emergency responders, the public and finally, preparedness planning.

Specifically, wireless providers would have to install back-up power capable of keeping their networks up for at least 72 hours, but only in the parts of their service areas that are classified as “tier 2 and tier 3 high fire threat districts”. As the CPUC’s interactive map shows, that includes most of the California coast, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades and large swaths of the southland.

All wireless providers, not just those in high fire threat areas, would have to file resiliency plans “that detail their ability to maintain a minimum level of service and coverage during a disaster or a commercial power grid outage”, as well as “annual emergency operations plans”.

The commission could vote on the proposed rules as soon as mid-July. In the meantime, it’ll be accepting public comments on the draft.

Proposed Decision of Commissioner Batjer Adopting Wireless Provider Resiliency Strategies, 11 June 2020

Telephone and cable companies stonewalled California emergency officials during massive power outages

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cell site outages 28oct2019

Mobile carriers generally cooperated with California emergency officials during the week long siege of public safety power shutoffs in October, while cable and telephone companies hid behind confidentiality claims. Paul Troxel, who heads the 911 program at the California office of emergency services, testified at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Wednesday and told commissioners that neither the state’s emergency operations center or local officials knew where access to 911 service and disaster information, such as evacuation orders, were unavailable…

Outage data was not reported by all providers. Some providers were very responsive and provided outage data as requested by Cal OES, while others were slow to respond due to confidentiality concerns related to outage data. Frankly, information from the wireline and VoIP providers was not provided until the end of the event. Because of the lack of complete reporting, Cal OES had to work with the Federal Communications Commission to activate the disaster information reporting system.

The FCC’s data isn’t intended to support real time operations. It’s typically 12 to 24 hours old and only aggregated data is provided – at the county level for mobile carriers and the state level for telephone and cable companies. But it did provide a useful check on the accuracy of the data provided voluntarily by telecoms companies through their industry association, which is their standard method.

It didn’t work so well. According to Troxel, at one point the industry’s organisation, the California Utilities Emergency Association (CUEA), reported that 57,000 wireline customers were out of service, while the FCC’s disaster information reporting system said the figure was 224,000. CUEA’s mobile outage reports weren’t much better – in one county the FCC said 133 cell sites were down while CUEA claimed only nine were. The problems with the industry association’s data were severe enough that OES requested reports directly from telecoms companies, with varying degrees of success.

During the hearing, Verizon, T-Mobile and, perhaps, AT&T executives promised to provide timely, detailed outage information in future emergencies, and make it public. A senior AT&T operations executive said the company would do so, after a company lawyer deflected the question by extolling the wonderfulness of the current system – that’s an arm wrestling match that needs to be resolved. The other representatives, from Frontier Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox and Sprint, wouldn’t make any promises at all.

Meaningful answers and we’ll get back to you, as CPUC drills down on phone, broadband outages in emergencies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cpuc phc telecoms outages 20nov2019

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 earlier 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.

Telecoms companies to explain broadband, phone failures during California power cuts

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Green acres utility pole

With another Pacific Gas and Electric company power shut off looming later today, the California Public Utilities Commission is calling in telecommunications companies and demanding that they be prepared to explain their “responsiveness during the latest wildfires and public safety power shut offs to keep telecommunications services on”.

A hearing is scheduled for this morning in San Francisco, with “top officials” from California’s major telecoms companies directed to “publicly appear and publicly address their response during the latest wildfire events [and] public safety power shutoffs”. The list includes California’s two big telephone companies – AT&T and Frontier Communications – as well as Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox on the cable side, and all four mobile carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Electric utility executives are also invited, albeit a bit more politely.

During the last wave of power cuts, intended to prevent wildfires, hundreds of thousands of Californians lost telephone and broadband service. Data collected by the Federal Communications Commission indicated that 455,000 telco and cable subscribers in 32 California counties lost connectivity, and 3.3% of cell sites were down. There might have been more – the FCC didn’t say how many telecoms companies were reporting outages – reporting was voluntary – or whether the total included all customers who couldn’t connect because they lacked back up power in their homes and businesses.

Who shows up will be as significant as what they say. Expect AT&T and Frontier to send people – they’re still regulated to an extent by the CPUC – but whether their representatives are actual decision makers or lobbyists with inflated titles remains to be seen.

Cable companies tend to resist any encroachment on their turf by the CPUC, so their response, if any, will be interesting to watch. Normally, mobile carriers don’t have much to say to state officials, but since AT&T has to be there anyway, and Sprint and T-Mobile are trying to make nice with the CPUC so they can gain approval for their merger, we might get some meaningful information from them.

Large scale telco, cable and mobile service outages follow California power cuts

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Cell site outages 28oct2019

Hundreds of thousands of Californians lost their wireline broadband and phone service over the past week, as the state’s major electric utilities cut off power to millions of people in an attempt to prevent wildfires from breaking out. Mobile broadband and telephone subscribers were equally hard hit, with one county – Marin – losing more than half of its cell sites at one point.

The Federal Communications Commission has been tracking wireline and mobile service outages since last Friday, when the power cuts were hitting hard in Pacific Gas and Electric’s northern California territory, and public safety power shutoffs were beginning to bite in the southern California service areas of San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. I’ve compiled all of their reports through yesterday into a single document, which you can download here.

From a telecoms point of view, the outages were at their peak on the FCC’s Sunday morning (0830 California time, 28 October 2019) report. At that time 455,000 telco and cable subscribers in 32 counties were without their landline connections and 3.3% of the total number of cell sites were down.

Some counties were hit much harder than others. Marin County lost 57% of its cell sites, while there were no reports of cell site outages in Santa Barbara County. Calaveras, Humboldt, Lake, Napa, Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties lost between 19% and 39% of cell sites.

It’s not clear what the wireline outage figure represents. Participation in the FCC’s disaster reporting system is voluntary. The list of willing companies hasn’t been made public and there’s no way of knowing if all of the telephone and cable companies in those counties are cooperating. The reports from the ones that are cooperating are based on “communications infrastructure status and situational awareness information” and “network outage data”. Which might not include all, or maybe even most, of the households and businesses which are offline because their equipment – cable and DSL modems, for example – don’t have backup power. The network might be fully functional, but if customer premise equipment is down, then service is too.

So that 455,000 customer wireline outage figure might be low.