On Monday, a bill that would require backup power to be available for all cell phone towers in high risk fire areas in California was moved up in the Assembly, coming close to a final vote and passage by the Governor.
Senate Bill 431, authored by Senator Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), would require cell phone companies to have at least 72 hours of power from an alternate source available at each cell phone tower within Tier 2 or Tier 3 High Fire Threat areas. Any violation or non-implementation by a cell phone company would constitute a crime, although the current bill gives no comply date or action taken, only that backup electrical supply rules will need to be implemented by July 2021.
California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) would be in charge of coming up with rules and standards.
The bill was written following a large number of planned blackouts last year. PG&E, wary of causing another costly wildfire like the 2018 Camp Fire, shut down many grids in the hope to mitigate wildfires across Northern and Central California, with blackouts reaching from rural areas to the suburbs of the Bay Area. These blackouts affected millions of people, leaving many vulnerable residents in danger due to being cut off from power and phones for, at times, days. The ensuing outrage sent many area politicians into writing bills for backup electrical proposals such as SB 431.
“In an emergency, our phones are our lifeline,” explained Senator Glazer in a statement. “It’s how we contact emergency responders, receive emergency alerts and check on our loved ones. Telecommunications companies assured us that their cell towers would stay up and running and we would be able to use our phones even during Power Shutoff events. Last year showed us that this was not true.”
SB 431 was also joined by a slew of similar bills calling for electrical backups that were promised last year. One of the most notable, Senator Bill Dodd’s (D-Napa) SB 1099, calls for water pumps and fire stations to have backup power running during such emergencies so no service is interrupted.
“With wildfire season approaching and the possibility of even more power shutoffs, it is absolutely imperative that we keep essential facilities functioning,” said Senator Dodd in a statement on SB 1099 earlier this year. “This bill is a commonsense step that ensures the public is served and protected at the most critical time.”
Little opposition for SB 431, SB 1099
Like SB 1099, SB 431 has only received nominal opposition from GOP legislators, largely over language in the bills over things such as the types of towers that would need such backup power, and specifics such as if fines are to be implemented, which are not outlined yet in the bill.
“It’s a foregone conclusion that these are going into place, especially after so many people lost cell phone service due to the outages last year,” explained telecommunications lobbyist Michael Reeves in an interview with the Globe. “But we, and many people in California, want to have more specifics and guarantees in the bill so this is done right and so that we have a fair timeline to work with. And we haven’t seen that just yet.”
SB 431 has received little opposition this session, passing Committee votes with a clear majority. SB 431 passed the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee on Monday 9-2 and is expected to pass the Assembly Appropriations Committee in the next few weeks.
SB 1099 passed the Senate in late June and is expected to move up through the Assembly this month.