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

20 July 2020 by Steve Blum
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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.