More than six weeks after a San Diego County wildfire knocked out key communications services to thousands of Imperial County residents and businesses, there has been little movement in the effort to prevent further outages.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced on Aug. 20 of another communications outage involving Ocotillo and possibly other areas of the county. Provider AT&T, in response to an e-mail inquiry from this newspaper, confirmed an outage occurred.
“Service was restored Sunday, August 19, for customers in parts of Imperial County who were affected by a fiber cut,” stated Scott Huscher, AT&T
lead public relations manager, southwest region.
No further details were released.
In the wake of a major outage on July 6, both Imperial County and the city of El Centro are requesting the state Public Utilities Commission require AT&T to install “redundancy” in its fiber-optic line that connects the county to the larger communications network.
Land-line telephone, cellular telephone and Internet services were down for about 12 hours due to a July 6 wildfire in Alpine. The fire caused damage to AT&T lines,
Huscher stated in a July 11 e-mail.
It was at least the fourth such outage in the last 15 years and officials warn such disruptions could have deadly consequences if they affect the 911 emergency telephone system or the ability to call it.
“I haven’t heard anything from the PUC, but I did send a follow-up message to my contact at the PUC yesterday to remind her of the conversation we had and to stress the County’s continued concern with the lack of redundancy in our telecommunications system and 911 service,” Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter, Imperial County intergovernmental relations director, wrote in an Aug. 15 e-mail.
At the request of county Chief Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr., Terrazas-Baxter raised the issue when she met with a PUC official on July 16. The meeting was originally about another matter and Terrazas-Baxter said she briefed the PUC official, who was not aware of the county’s concerns.
Meanwhile, El Centro has also contacted the PUC about the agency requiring AT&T to install redundancy to prevent outages, said Heather Johnson, county 911 coordinator and communications supervisor for the El Centro Police Department.
Johnson said she filled out an online PUC complaint form in late July after being unsatisfied with AT&T’s response to a February complaint. Rouhotas said the complaint was made due a minor outage in early 2018.
Johnson said AT&T stated an upgrade could take 18 more months, a time frame she said was unacceptable given how long outage problems have persisted.
Johnson did not immediately have information about the status of her complaint to the PUC.
Of her recent communication with the PUC official with whom she had met Terrazas-Baxter stated she “notified her of the additional efforts that the El Centro Police Department’s Communications Supervisor and the County’s 911 Coordinator, Heather Johnson, has been doing with the hope of heightening attention to the complaint she filed with AT&T and the need to have this issue addressed to increase reliability of our system.”
In the days after the fire and resulting outage Huscher stated in an e-mail the firm had made repairs as soon as it was safe to but did not speak to the larger issue of line redundancy.
Likewise, the PUC also offered limited comment in the days following the outage despite several requests for more detailed information. Agency Public Information Officer Christopher Chow issued a more detailed response in an Aug. 10 e-mail. He did not address the request for line redundancy from Imperial County and El Centro or the meeting between Terrazas-Baxter and the PUC official.
The Calexico/Chronicle/Imperial Valley Weekly/Holtville Tribune posed the following questions to the PUC: “How is it that damage to a single line nearly 100 miles away from Imperial County can knock out much of its communication system? Are there outage reports for all wildfires that cause outages? How does the PUC determine there was an outage from a wildfire? Does the PUC go looking for them in an any way or do the utilities self-report? Are providers of cellular and Internet service required to report outages as landline providers are? If reporting is required for cellular and Internet providers are there any differences between the rules for landlines?”
Chow issued the following responses:
“Communication networks may be vulnerable to outages (such as damage to a single line 100 miles away) depending on the topography and configuration of the network. Sometimes communication facilities that serve local areas are damaged by fires, fiber cuts, or other outage reasons that are experienced far away from the local area.”
“The CPUC monitors communication outages according to General Order 133D, which includes provisions for reporting of major communication service outages and information during disasters. The California fires have destroyed many homes, some businesses, and communication facilities (including poles, fiber, wireless towers, remote terminals, and other equipment) that serve locations inside the fire perimeter. Generally speaking, the areas that have been impacted are: access to 911 in the fire areas, and some communication fiber that serves areas outside the burned area. Wireless carriers that have had cell sites down have been providing temporary cell sites.”
“Wireline and cellular carriers are required to report major outages according to General Order 133D. These rules require reporting according to certain thresholds (which are a combination of number of users affected for a period of time, and impact to 911 facilities). Internet service outages by reporting carriers are not covered under the reporting rules.”
“Major service outage reports have similar thresholds for all kinds of service providers. The CPUC requires wireless, wireline, and cable communications providers of switched voice to report information about significant disruptions or outages to their communications systems that meet specified thresholds. The General Order and company attestations deem these reports to be confidential, landline service quality reports are posted on the CPUC’s web page (cpuc.ca.gov).”