Telecom companies may soon be required to provide at least 48 hours of battery backup power for cellphone towers in high-risk fire areas, including the Santa Monica Mountains. SB 431, sponsored by California Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Senator Steve Gazer (D-Orinda) would also require telecommunication companies to notify cell customers when backup power is running low.
McGuire described the issue of cell outages, whether they occur during disasters like wildfires or because of planned outages like SCE emergency planned Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), as a matter of life and death.
“Residents rely on their cellphones and landlines as their lifelines during disasters,” Mcguire said during a press conference on the bill.
McGuire authored the bill after his constituents were impacted by wildfire and PG&E’s mammoth PSPS in Sonoma County last year, estimated to have cost $725 million in economic losses. Residents of the Santa Monica Mountains impacted by the blackout caused by the Woolsey Fire and subsequent smaller-scale power shut-offs, shared the same feeling of helplessness when communications went down and stayed down.
“Imagine, as many have on the North Coast, looking out your living room window and seeing a wall of blistering flames coming at your home,” McGuire said. “You gather your family, prepare to evacuate and then you call 911 and then that call doesn’t go through because you can’t get a strong enough cell signal.”
SB 431 was one of three telecom bills McGuire introduced in 2019. SB 670, which requires telecommunications providers to report 911 service outages to the California Office of Emergency Services in real time, and SB 560, which requires telecom providers to notify emergency responders and hospitals before a planned power shut off is implemented. Both bills passed last year.
SB 431, postponed last year, but expected to be approved during the California Legislature’s new session, requires telecom companies to establish a minimum operating life for backup power systems of no less than 48 hours. It also establishes a means to warn customers when the backup power system is low or when the transceiver system can no longer be supported by the backup system.
If the bill is approved, telecom companies will be required to pay for the upgrades but the legislation does not prevent them from passing the costs on to customers.