Three new bills requiring cell phone and electric companies to provide emergency backup power to cell towers and hospitals will be introduced in Sacramento next year.
The Three Bills
One of the bills would require cell phone providers to have at least 72 hours of emergency backup power at all of their towers in areas projected to be affected by wildfires, which also includes areas where voluntary shutdowns to reduce the chances of wildfires would be.
Another bill would give emergency backup battery packs or battery-powered chargers to customers who live in areas affected by long-term planned blackouts.
A different bill that would allow hospitals to run diesel generators during a planned blackout is also planned, and would change laws that currently bar such a generator from running due to air pollution concerns.
‘We must also do all we can to help our residents deal with any power outages’
Senator Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) and Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) are currently planning the bills. The response of both Senator Glazer and Assemblywoman Bauer-Kahan comes from the outcry of millions of California residents whose lives were upended and even threatened after a series of planned blackouts by power provider PG&E in October and November.
Over 450,000 people were not only without power but phone service during the planned blackouts. Marin County alone had more than half of the cell towers in the county shut down at a time when people needed to call to receive information. Fire and police services who lost both cell and internet service had to rely on radios alone to coordinate in some areas, putting thousands of lives at risk.
But both the Senator and the Assemblywoman made it clear that it was imperative that the outages stop altogether.
“Our most urgent priority is to force the utilities to do everything possible to end these outages,” Said Senator Glazer in a statement late last week. “Until we have that assurance, we must also do all we can to help our residents deal with any power outages that do occur.”
The problems with cell phone towers
The Globe sat down with a cell phone tower worker in Riverside County about what this bill means.
“It’s not as easy as hooking up a giant battery to it and calling it a day,” said ‘Gus’, who has worked on towers in the county since the mid-2000’s. “The sheer number of towers in California is an issue. There was that incident a few years ago where there was an uproar over I think 50,000 towers going up. Ok, now imagine that number spread throughout the Bay Area, or areas where the fire is at. Granted, it’s more rural, but there are many big cities there, and many towers along the highways. That’s a ton of towers.”
“Now, all of those need batteries. Or generators. Where will you put them? Near maintenance areas? Ok, that means having to shelter them, so not only are you buying a big expensive battery, you need to buy housing for them. And extra maintenance costs to make sure it will work when needed to.”
“And will these be remotely activated, or only activated at each tower? If the generator is low on fuel, how do you refill it during a wildfire?”
“I applaud whoever is trying to do something, but you need to figure out all the kinks beforehand. Like, also, who is paying for this? The cell phone companies? The state? This is not cheap. Yes, it’s better to do this and save lives, but you’ve got to look at this from every possible angle. It seems to me that whoever wrote this has never even stood next to a cell tower before.”
“But what we can’t have are those little areas PG&E set up to provide phone charging and emergency calls at. I’ve only seen centers like that pop up once before, and that was when I was volunteering in Louisiana right after [Hurricane] Katrina.”
Better communication between cellular companies and power companies are needed
During a recent California Public Utilities Commission, members of the commission told phone companies that customers pay for service. Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves even summed it up nicely.
“The customers need to know where there’s coverage and where there’s not, and the local responders need to know,” said Commissioner Guzman Aceves.
Cell phone companies have also shown frustration, as PG&E did not update them on affected areas. Companies were shuttling around generators to different cell phone towers, only to find those towers had their power back on, depriving still affected areas of cell phone service.
“There’s no optimal solution out there,” explained ‘Gus’. “Every solution comes with a host of new problems and costs that no side wants to pay, even though we are talking about people’s lives.”
The bills of Senator Glazer and Assemblywoman Bauer-Kahan are expected to be introduced when the Senate and Assembly sessions begin in January.