Cell Coverage Failed in October 2017 California Fires

A. Wireless Industry: 77 Cell Towers Failed in the First Hours of The Oct 2017 Fires in Northern California

From 10/16/17: Piedmont, CA City Council Meeting || 9/30/17: No Significant Gap in Verizon Coverage:

In the first video, above, at a 10/16/17 Piedmont, CA City Council meeting, a Crown Castle/Verizon representative tells the truth on the record.. The Wireless alerts failed to get through. Residents with copper, legacy landline phones received the reverse-911 warnings to evacuate.

Jason Osborne, Crown Castle/Verizon Representative at 0:14 in the first video:

“Good evening Council, my name is Jason Osborne, representing Crown Castle . . . this will be a little emotional for me but I am a resident, a proud resident, of Sonoma County. I live in Petaluma. I have more than ten close friends that I can identify that have lost their homes and one of the biggest things [is that] I’m in Telecom, so I can state that, as a fact, 77 cell sites were burned in the area.

There were over 400 people missing where people couldn’t get a hold of their families, myself included. My Mom lives on Pembrook Avenue, which is less than one block from Coffey Park, which if you’ve remember any of the news that entire subdivision was destroyed. The cell site that was nearby Piner High School went down and I was unable to get a hold of my mother for close to twelve hours until I tried to drive up there myself.

So I just want to go on record and state that since this fire has happened there have been a number of news organizations from PBS to KQED to the National Weather Service that have stated that the networks being down . . . there’s an online article from KQED on October 13 stating that, ‘The communications in the region have been difficult since fire broke out. The National Guard has brought in a satellite cell system to help connect loved ones.’ On October 15, the Sacramento Bee wrote an article titled, ‘Northern California wildfire exposes emergency alert weakness in a cell phone era.’ We have stated a number of times that we understand that people can make calls in the in the beautiful City of Piedmont and there’s no doubt [about that].”

Piedmont, CA Resident at 2:31 in the first video:

The emergency threat keeps being put out there by Crown Castle, but I just want to remind us that if there were fires here, those cell towers would be burned and they would not [work], right? . . . What is the real solution in the event of an emergency? Maybe its more of an endorsement for [legacy, copper, POTS] landlines and keeping these landlines than having more cell phone coverage.

Piedmont, CA Resident at 4:39 in the first video:

“The force-feeding of [cellular data] service to people who are simply exercising their rights to protect their property, their safety and happiness needs to stop”.

Call AT&T to order a landline (dial 800-288-2020, press zero, say “New Service”, say your address, say “Home Account” and you will get a person). For $26.00 per month (plus an estimated $10 to $15 per month in taxes and fees), you can get a no-frills, unlimited-local-calls telephone line that will work reliably even if the power to your home is out. The monthly fee can be discounted for qualifying households by applying to the California Lifeline Program (877-858-7463). This way, in a disaster, you will be able to make 911 calls that provide reliable address detection of your home and you will be able to receive reverse-911 emergency warning/evacuation calls — even if the electricity is knocked out!

B. The 10/17/17 Letter from Senators Harris and Feinstein to the FCC Addresses Only Half the Problem

It is too bad that Senators Kamala Harris and Diane Feinstein didn’t stick around at the 10/14/15 Santa Rosa Community Meeting for the two hours of Q & A, following their remarks to survivors of the devastating Santa Rosa fires. If our Senators had stayed, they would have heard for themselves how the reverse-911 calls made to traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones properly warned Santa Rosa residents — saving many lives — while the Wireless Emergency Alert systems and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones did not properly warn Santa Rosa residents because 77 cell towers burned and the power went downresulting in no warnings to many Wireless-only customers and 250+ confirmed dead or missing in Santa Rosa.

  1. Facebook Video Part One: Legislators’ Presentations (29:34)
  2. Facebook Video Part Two: Public Questions and Answers (1:59:22)

It is disappointing to see that our Senators are not adequately facing the real limitations of Wireless-only communications. For emergency-preparedness, Americans need reliable copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones until another system is equally reliable. No amount of rulemaking can change the plain facts and physics of the matter: Wireline communications, buried in the ground, are much more resilient in “situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being.”

California Senators Harris and Feinstein Report to FCC That Wireless Emergency Alert System Failed During California Wildfires

Link to original. Tuesday, October 17, 2017

WASHINGTON – In the wake of the deadliest wildfires in California’s history, U.S Senators Kamala D. Harris and Dianne Feinstein (both D-CA) today wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai about the limitations of the Wireless Emergency Alert (‘WEA’)system.

The text of letter [with suggested additions from Scientists for Wired Technology in red] can be found below. For a scanned PDF version of the letter, without these suggested additions and with footnotes, click here.

October 17, 2017

The Honorable Ajit Pai
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20554

Dear Chairman Pai:

As we write, massive, uncontrolled wildfires continue to sweep through Northern California. More than 40 Californians have lost their lives, [over 225 Californians are still missing], over 40,000 residents have been evacuated, and over 5,700 homes and buildings have been destroyed. We are shocked and saddened by the devastation, and we will do everything in our power to help Californians recover and rebuild—and to make sure this never happens again.

In a crisis like this, receiving a timely emergency alert on one’s [traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones] or mobile phone can be the difference between life and death. Families may have mere minutes to evacuate. That’s why, over ten years ago, a bipartisan group of legislators developed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act. That law requires the FCC to adopt technical standards for wireless providers to transmit emergency alerts to their subscribers. President Bush, who signed the WARN Act into law, declared that “it is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being.” [“Effective, reliable, and integrated” means using whatever Wireline and Wireless technology that is available to get the job done. We believe that the FCC’s current policies and rulemaking are leaving Californians and other Americans in a state of unreadiness during “war terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being”, which is not acceptable.]

In the intervening years, the FCC has worked with the wireless industry to develop a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system for mobile phones [in addition to the already properly functioning 9-1-1 Emergency alert system provided by traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones]. These short messages provide essential and time-sensitive public safety information — without requiring any advance planning by subscribers. In theory, the WEA system enables state, county, and municipal authorities to instantly warn their residents. We, like millions of Californians, count on the WEA system to keep us safe. [In practice, no current Wireless Emergency Alert system reliably works when the power goes down, unlike traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones which carries power on its copper lines from remote sources, allowing landline phones to work reliably even when the power is out and when the power remains out for an extended period of time].

Recent news reports have indicated that emergency services in Northern California were not able to transmit lifesaving WEA messages, because of significant technical deficiencies in the WEA system. Specifically, because [unlike traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones,] the WEA system does not enable precise geotargeting—a feature that has been standard in [mobile applications landline phones for years—emergency services cannot send a [Wireless] evacuation message without reaching a large number of unaffected residents. These [Wireless] emergency services are caught in a bind between notifying individuals in imminent danger and risking mass panic. As a result, these services are compelled to rely on emergency messaging systems with far less reach and far less capacity. [In contrast, traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phones set the gold standard by enabling precise geo-targeting by address, and do not face the same bind as that faced by Wireless Emergency Alert systems]

In September 2016, the FCC proposed new rules that would require wireless carriers to enable precise geotargeting of WEA warnings, [while allowing and encouraging Telecom Carriers of Last Resort [COLRs] to end traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phone services in many states]. We are heartened that you and your colleagues voted in favor of the WEA proposal. You even wrote separately in a concurring opinion, emphasizing the importance of geotargeted alerts. We are disappointed, though, that under your leadership the FCC has not executed on its proposal with a final rule and [that during your leadership you allowed and encouraged Telecom Carriers of Last Resort (COLRs) to end traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phone services in many states — without an equivalent and reliable Emergency Alert System to replace what was being taken away from the public]. We are also concerned that the FCC has granted a temporary waiver of the existing, imprecise geotargeting requirements for certain carriers.

We ask for you to respond to the following questions about the future of the WEA system [and the status of the still critically-important Wireline Emergency Alert System provided by traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phone lines]:

  1. Have you solicited feedback from emergency services in Northern California about whether the WEA system is meeting their needs and what improvements are necessary? If you have, what feedback have you received? If you have not, will you commit to promptly seeking that feedback and informing us about what you learn?
  2. California is not alone in experiencing a natural disaster this year.
    Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose have also been tragedies for our fellow Americans. Have you solicited feedback from emergency services in the jurisdictions affected by those incidents to understand how the WEA system is meeting their needs and what improvements are necessary? If you have, what feedback have you received? If you have not, will you commit to promptly seeking that feedback and informing us about what you learn?
  3. Do you intend to proceed with the WEA rulemaking that the FCC initiated over a year ago? If you do, will you commit to expeditiously completing the rulemaking? If you do not, why not?
  4. Several technology vendors have taken the position that incorporating precise geolocation into the WEA system is technically infeasible or excessively burdensome [which is why traditional copper, legacy, wireline POTS landline phone lines still play a critically important role for reliable Emergency Alert systems.] Our assessment, confirmed by experts we have consulted, is that these technical objections are unfounded. Have you evaluated the technical feasibility of incorporating precise geolocation into the WEA system, and if you have, what have you concluded?

In light of the ongoing emergency in our state, we request your reply.

From 10/14/15 Santa Rosa Community Meeting:

Before the Santa Rosa Community meeting started, I was in the second row. As Governor Jerry Brown entered, he asked for my name, shook my hand and spoke to me briefly before taking his seat in the front row. We discussed how communications during the first few critical hours of a disaster need to be robust and not fragile. We discussed that Wireline not Wireless communications technology performed better in this fire disaster and that One Big Dig for California i.e. undergrounding Fiber-Optic, Coaxial and Copper lines in the rebuild would make this public utility asset more defensible from attack from future disasters or terrorism. Finally, I mentioned that a bill on his desk right now, SB.649 — Wireless Tools of Commerce, would present a new, potent fire hazard to every community in California — the 35 cubic foot ancillary equipment boxes next to each utility-pole-mounted cell phone antenna would contain back up power systems (lithium-ion batteries, like the ones in Tesla cars that catch fire, or propane/diesel generators) that would become bombs on the sidewalks in a fire. I asked him to veto this unnecessary Bill, SB.649, because it would be a fire hazard and take away local communities’ abilities to plan and execute the best future for their residents. To his credit, Governor Brown listened and vetoed SB.649 Wireless Tools of Commerce, on Sunday, October 15, 2017.

My Questions Transcribed from From 10/14/17 Community Meeting Video — Questions That Still Needs Answers

My name is Paul and I am from Petaluma, Our city loves Santa Rosa and wants to help you in anyway that we can . . . I have a question for all of us, for Senator Harris and for Governor Brown.

  1. The first question is, if you need reliable notification for emergency and disasters, why can’t we all retain our landlines that are copper and they are the ones that work in a power outage, because the Wireless Nixle alerts and all of the other Wireless means of communication instantly go down as soon as the fire arrives. Your landlines will continue to work because the [remote power] on these copper lines still operates [during a disaster].
  2. I have a question for Kamala Harris: will you help us to report AT&T for price gouging on those landline services that prevents people from keeping this very import emergency service. As a carrier of last resort, AT&T must provide these landlines to everyone who wants one [and do so at an affordable price]. It’s the 175% price increase over eight years that pushes people away.
    [APPLAUSE](Note: actually, as you can read here the price of the basic AT&T California state utility phone service went up 138% from 2008-2016 and ancillary services went up 60%-525%).
  3. And finally for Governor Brown, you have legislation on your desk right now that is a fire hazard. If SB.649 [Wireless Tools of Commerce] gets signed by Governor Brown, it would place at residents’ doorsteps — right next to every utility pole in every residential neighborhood — a refrigerator-sized 35-cubic foot ancillary equipment cabinet which will contain lithium ion batteries as backup [power for the cell phone antennas to be installed on these utility poles] or possibly propane or diesel generators. These will explode in any fire.

What I am suggesting is that, as we rebuild, we put all of this infrastructure underground to make it safe for everybody in residential neighborhoods [for any future fire or earthquake and we do not install the unnecessary, fragile and not-dependable-in-a-disaster, so-called “Small Cell” cell towers in front of homes in residential neighborhoods. We would be better served by undergrounded Wireline fiber-optic internet to every home — the fastest, highest-bandwidth, most reliable, most secure and most energy-efficient way to close the Digital Divide.]

From KQED:

77 cell towers knocked out in the fires . . . Communications in the region have been difficult since the fires broke out on Sunday night, with many losing their power and struggling to find reliable cell coverage . . . The lack of connectivity has made it difficult for people in the area to connect with loved ones. Officials are asking people to register themselves at safeandwell.org to alert friends and family of their status.

Hint: Legacy, copper landline telephone lines (not Voice-Over-Internet Protocol, VOIP or U-Verse phones) work reliably, even when the power is out. Try to get one right away. AT&T is the Carrier-of-Last-Resort (‘COLR) (dial 800-288-2020, press zero, say “New Service”, say your address, say “Home Account” and you will get a person) for most markets in Northern California. Frontier Communications (855-682-0455) has taken over COLR duties from Verizon in other California markets.

From CBS News:

Crucial communication proves difficult as wildfires knock out cell towers

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The wildfires raging through Northern California have also knocked out cell phone service, making it more difficult for people to call for and get help, and for families to locate loved ones. Seventy-seven cell towers went down during the fire. But the widespread outages didn’t just affect first responders. Hundreds of people have been reported missing.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordono admits that warning people, even with an automated calling system, was difficult. “People don’t have land lines anymore,” he said. “Without land lines if you don’t sign your cell phone up, you don’t get that service.”

From the Sacramento Bee:

Northern California wildfires expose emergency alert weaknesses in cellphone era

Some people in fire-threatened neighborhoods got a [landline] call, and others, like cellphone-only user Cheryl Irvine of Loma Rica, didn’t.

County officials in the fire zones are offering a disconcerting mea culpa. Their emergency warning systems are severely limited – and in some ways getting worse. Traditionally, counties have built their phone alert systems by collecting all households’ landline phone numbers from phone carriers and sending out mass alerts in emergencies.

But the number of people with landlines has dropped dramatically in the last decade. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 percent of U.S. households no longer have a landline, as more people rely only on cellphones. County emergency officials say it’s harder for them to collect cellphone numbers. They often rely on voluntary sign-up systems that allow people with cellphones to register their numbers with the county that can be used to send out emergency alerts

Conclusion: Wireline Communications are much more reliable than Wireless in an emergency disaster. For your safety, order and maintain a legacy copper, not a Voice-Over-Internet (VOIP), landline telephone line.