Posted: 10 Nov 2019 09:57 AM PST
Legacy system in disrepair
There are no such FCC requirements for the smaller phone "cabinets" that extend landline service beyond central offices, data centers serving home phones that connect calls through the internet, or cell towers, said Alexis Kwasinski, a University of Pittsburgh professor specializing in critical infrastructure systems.
Landline cabinets and cellphone towers can remain operational during outages of eight hours or less by drawing power from batteries, and telecommunications companies can use generators to keep equipment humming during longer blackouts, Kwasinski said. But adding generators to all sites can pose new risks by introducing fuel into areas that may be susceptible to wildfires or earthquakes, he said. Space limitations can also make it difficult to install backup power solutions, he said.
"It's easy to solve, in the sense that we know that it can be done," Kwasinski said. "But the problem is all the constraints you have."
The two major legacy landline providers in California — AT&T California and Frontier Communications — have equipped most of their central offices with backup battery systems and diesel generators that, depending on call volume, can keep systems running for at least 72 hours or more, according to a 44-page summary of a roughly 600-page report commissioned by the state Public Utilities Commission; the full report has yet to be released.
But as consumers are increasingly ditching their landlines and relying solely on cellphones, maintenance of copper wire networks has fallen by the wayside.
Both AT&T and Frontier have failed to properly maintain their landline networks, according to the summary of the PUC report, which examined service from 2010 to 2017. It called for higher fines when providers fail to provide quality service.
"AT&T had the financial resources to maintain and upgrade its landline network in California, but has yet to do so," the summary noted. And though Frontier, which acquired Verizon's California landline operations in 2016, demonstrated "a strong interest in pursuing such upgrades," the company "lacks the financial capacity to make the necessary investments."
Michael Picker, who was president of the California Public Utilities Commission until his recent retirement, said the findings made it clear that telecommunications companies have not been investing in maintaining and upgrading networks in rural, sparsely populated areas of the state.
"But that's where we've seen some of the worst wildfire catastrophes that demand durable and resilient communications infrastructure for warning people, for evacuations and recovery," Picker said in a PUC newsletter touting the study in August. "Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later."
AT&T: 'Dynamic situation'
The PUC has allowed both AT&T and Frontier to avoid fines for poor service in exchange for commitments to spend millions on improving their infrastructure.
AT&T, which settled by agreeing to spend $11.8 million for 2017 and 2018 in lieu of fines, criticized the summary of the study as "biased" and "unsubstantiated" in a statement, noting that it had not yet seen the full report.
Asked about the scope of impact to its landline customers, AT&T said it would work to improve service for landline customers after any "large-scale event."
"This was a very dynamic situation and we worked around the clock to serve our customers," AT&T said in the statement. "For instance, we utilized backup power solutions throughout our network and deployed generators to support our wired network as well."
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