Legislation to force telecom companies to have backup power for cell sites expanded

SACRAMENTO – Californians left in the dark during power shutoffs or who face oncoming firestorms have their lives put at risk when their cell phones, cable and landlines go down.

Last year, as the Kincade fire burned in Sonoma County forcing the largest evacuation in the county’s history during one of the biggest public safety power shutoffs in California history, hundreds of cell towers residents have come to rely on went dark.

This left hundreds of thousands of Californians in harm’s way without their cell phone during a disaster.

Sen. Mike McGuire introduced SB 431 last year, which would mandate telecommunication providers have backup power systems for their cell towers.

This week, that bill was strengthened even further when Senator McGuire and Senator Glazer joined forces and introduced amendments that will add cable service providers to the power backup mandate, and lengthen the amount of time the backup power system operates to no less than 72 hours.

“During last year’s power outage debacle, nearly 2 million Northern California residents had their landline, cell phone and cable service interrupted. Our phones are our lifelines. It’s how we keep in touch with the rest of the world and how we receive emergency alerts. Telecom representatives assured us this worst-case scenario, hundreds of cell towers going down due to the lack of power, wouldn’t happen. It’s simply not true. It’s time California steps up and mandates cell towers have backup power. This bill isn’t about checking your Facebook status. It’s about life and death,” Sen. McGuire said.

SB 431 requires that cell towers located in high fire-threat zones (these high-risk areas are where the majority of power shutoffs have been happening) have backup power for no less than 72 hours by July 1, 2021.

It empowers the California Public Utilities Commission to develop desperately needed regulations to keep cell towers energized during extended power shutoffs.

Bay Area Sen. Steve Glazer is a joint author of SB 431.

“It is critical that Californians be able to communicate during power outages, whether planned or caused by an emergency. During last fall’s outages, thousands of residents in my district were left without the ability to receive alerts from public agencies or seek help, even as fires raged nearby. This is unacceptable. SB 431 is the first step toward ensuring that this won’t happen again,” Sen. Glazer said.

In Sonoma County, during last year’s Kincade Fire and Public Safety Power Shutoff, 118 cell towers were down.

Many evacuated residents from Sonoma County found themselves in Marin County for shelter where another 160 cell sites were down. Hundreds of more sites were down across California, which puts lives at risk.

SB 431 is co-authored by a bipartisan group of legislators including Senators Stern, Gonzalez, Wilk, Nielsen, Beall, Caballero, Hill, Dodd, Monning, Wieckowski and Dahle, and Assemblymembers Bauer-Kahan, Rubio, Wood and Levine.

The bill is currently in the Assembly Committee on Communications and Conveyance and will be heard in the coming months.