California Wildfires

Mobile coverage suffers during natural calamities

California’s recent power shutdown, meant to lower the risk of potentially catastrophic fires, has had an unwelcome side effect. The blackouts have also cut power to many mobile phone towers, blocking the main source of communication for many in harm’s way.

On Tuesday, PG&E, the utility company for Northern California, started another wave of deliberate blackouts. Almost 2 million residents suffered the fourth planned power outage this month.

Two weeks ago, during a preventative PG&E power shut-off, mobile phone service was down for up to 10% of San Francisco Bay Area subscribers to the major carriers: T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon. Surprisingly, even landlines were down as more service providers rely on voice-over-IP technology that depends on Internet connectivity, which in turn needs electricity. Comcast, for example, which runs Internet and landline phone services, said that when commercial power goes down, so does its services.

It’s not just the northern region of California that’s facing the brunt of the wildfire season. Even Southern California, especially the Los Angeles area, has been hit hard by the Santa Ana winds that fuel the flames.

The problems owing to the power outages exposed holes in a wireless and Internet network increasingly used to communicate in emergencies. The growing connection between power failures and communications outages stems from the effect of mobile devices, which have become the sole source of voice communication for many people. For example, PG&E faced problems with its website this week, compounding the situation. At the start of the scheduled shut-down, the company directed customers seeking information about the outage to a special site, but amid the influx of traffic, that site slowed and crashed.

A report prepared by the US Federal Communications Commission reveals that at least 874 of the state’s cell sites were out on Monday, up from 630 on Sunday, when fires broke out north of the Bay Area. These cell sites lack battery or generator backup, so are useless when PG&E cuts power.

In general, many cell towers do have some form of backup power. When they lose power, they resort to batteries. If the batteries run out, the towers draw power from generators, which rely on fuel. These methods can provide power for several days, depending on whether the generators can be refuelled, but during wildfires this task becomes impossible to accomplish.

Wireless service providers tend to be put under the spotlight during natural disasters, and have been learning to address weaknesses in their infrastructures and employ extra personnel, flying them to affected areas. Nonetheless, as mobile voice and data services have become a lifeline now more than ever, providers need to continue to build out their networks in expectation of the need for greater resiliency.

For example, robust infrastructure components such as fibre cables with fire-resistant casing would help lines of communication remain accessible between members of a community and emergency services.

It’s electricity suppliers such as PG&E that are most firmly under the microscope, following a second season of devastation caused by the Santa Ana winds. However, with ageing electricity infrastructure an unfortunate reality, attention will inevitably turn to the ability of communications networks to maintain service. The fires and power shut-downs in California are another example of how wireless service has cemented its place in society moving beyond a creature comfort to becoming vital in worst-case scenarios.