SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Utility regulators demanded answers Wednesday from wireless, internet and landline providers why their equipment failed during previous Pacific Gas & Electric power outages, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without a way to get emergency alerts or make 911 calls.

Statewide, about 3% of cell towers failed at one point in late October, but the numbers were much higher in northern counties, such as Marin, which had 57% of its towers out and Sonoma, which had 27% out.

In some cases, public safety workers had to drive for an hour to see if they needed to check in, said John Kennedy of the Rural County Representatives of California. Fire departments lost contact with firetrucks and some had to rely on radios because download speeds were so slow or out of service, he said.

More than 450,000 people were left without communications, according to the group.

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Exasperated members of the California Public Utilities Commission reminded representatives of Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and other companies ordered to the San Francisco meeting on Wednesday that customers pay for reliable service.

“The customers need to know where there’s coverage and where there’s not, and the local responders need to know,” said Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves.

“Next fire season cannot, cannot look like this one,” said commission President Marybel Batjer.

Consumer advocates have urged the commission to establish backup power requirements and make the companies provide detailed information about outage locations.

On Wednesday, California Sen. Steve Glazer and Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan proposed legislation that would require mobile phone companies to provide at least 72 hours of backup power at cell towers.

Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T officials said they would disclose outage information immediately, but did not commit to the 72 hours backup regulation.

They also criticized PG&E, saying the utility’s changing outage forecasts made it difficult to prepare adequately. For example, AT&T deployed 60 generators to the San Francisco Bay Area only to learn that the suburbs were no longer affected by the current power outage, said Jeff Luong, a vice president with AT&T.

“It’s impossible to react to that type of information,” he said.

Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon said AT&T’s network went down right away during an outage in late October, risking the county’s sewer and alarm systems. There was no backup in place, he said.

“That really put us in a dire straits situation,” he said.

Batjer told communications company representatives she was surprised by their lack of preparation given California’s long history of wildfires.

“It’s sort of stunning that you go, ‘Well, we just learned a lot in the last three weeks,’” she said.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has called the companies’ level of engagement unacceptable at a time when redundant infrastructure is necessary.

In written responses in advance of Wednesday’s meetings, the companies said they communicated with authorities but the outages were unprecedented in scope. The companies said they are improving backup power sources but added that doing so might not be possible in some locations and that generators are not always safe.

Comcast said that its network “like any modern network, fundamentally relies on commercial power to operate.”


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