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

15 July 2020 by Steve Blum
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“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.