Phones, Fire, and Landlines

"We interrupt this program"....text, found on a TV screen, says that you are seeing this message as part of the emergency broadcast system.

Dear Smartphone interrupts this column to provide an announcement from the Emergency Preparedness System….

In Northern California, many households keep two phones: there is the regular cell-phone, and then a separate landline for emergencies. The landline is expected to be the backup when cell towers go down. It is the lifeline to receive an call or reach ‘911’.

During the October, 2019 fires, these landlines often failed…alongside with the PG&E electrical service. It turns out that ‘POTS’, which stands for Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, is not as reliable as it used to be. Here’s why:

Fiber Optics: Look Again

With the growth of the Internet, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables. But, fiber optics don’t have the same ability as copper lines to maintain service indefinitely when there is a power failure Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station.

Under everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. However, fiber optics (and coaxial cable) depend on electricity to power the system. When there is a complete electricity shutdown the fiber optics fail, unless there is an extensive generator for electrical backup.

POTS (plain old phone service) NOT

Today, when households keep a landline, they expect to get the reliability and backup of ‘POTS’. But, it’s often not the case. Many ‘landlines’ now transmit over fiber optics instead of copper lines. According to a valuable survey done shortly after the 2017 fires in Northern California, 85% of those who subscribed to a landline did not know their POTS used fiber optics.

It gets worse, because many users with POTS service, have upgraded their phone receiver (the phone itself), not realizing that it also requires backup power. These wall mounted or desk phones plug into an electrical source. When the electricity cuts off, these phones can operate for up to eight hours if they have an internal battery. However, that assumes the battery is present, fresh, and charged. In the fore-mentioned survey, 28% of the respondents said they just expected the phones to work and only 4% had ordered an optional back-up battery.

Not a Wired Fix

The FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission are fully aware of these issues but there is not a single fix with the demise of copper wires. The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, often use fiber optics to link between Central Stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages. WSJ reporter Sarah Krouse indicates that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to wireless carriers in September about how they were preparing for fires and power shutdowns in California.

Apparently Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all replied detailing the types of backup power available at their sites and the equipment that could quickly be deployed there in the event of an outage. But, it didn’t work out that way for Northern California

‘Know” your Landline

The big picture is that the newest technology brings households a multitude of communication channels, but deny them confidence in a reliable system that operates during emergencies. In practical terms, redundancy counts, so having both a “landline” and a cell phone is clearly better than having just one option. Knowing whether the “landline” operates on fiber optics or copper cable is also useful. And, knowing that you need a spare battery (or generator) to backup the landline could make the difference between no-signal and safety. That said, it’s a complicated network to add to a California’s household brimming emergency prep kit.