Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said Thursday that the commission is investigating why cell service went down when California utility PG&E shut off power to avoid sparking wildfires in October.
Pai was responding to a comment from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) regarding 874 cell towers that went out of service in California in October when wildfire conditions spread across the Bay Area and Pacific Gas & Electric (P&G) cut its power to reduce wildfire risks, leaving 454,722 without cellphone service during the emergency, according to FCC data.
"This is part of the reason why I have stressed -- even before the wildfire situation you described -- I've stressed the need for power companies to share information with telecommunications providers. In this case, they did not do that," Pai said before the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Eshoo said in turn that because Pai asked power companies to share information with telecommunications providers and they did not get back to him, he was responsible for following up.
"You have to be gum stuck to someone's shoe on behalf of the American people. We are not the states of America. We are the United States of America," the California representative said, adding that "there needs to be a plan" for situations like the California wildfires.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) also brought up the issue, asking Pai if he could commit to including wildfire considerations in the FCC framework, which is described as a "voluntary wireless industry commitment to promoting resilient wireless communications and situational awareness during disasters."
"The framework includes all types of disasters within it ... it doesn't exclude wildfires in particular," Pai responded.
Matsui asked if any improvements would be made to the framework and when.
"Poor coordination of power companies caused widespread confusion and severely jeopardized public safety in California. Chairman Pai, has FCC made improvements to the framework based on this investigation?” she asked.
Pai said the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau staff is looking at the framework and doing "aggressive outreach to communications companies."
He added that he "personally" has "emphasized that power companies and telecom companies need to cooperate," but telecom companies don’t have jurisdiction over energy companies.
"I would welcome the subcommittee's action on this because, at the end of the day, if you're a consumer in your district who's affected by a wildfire, you don't care whether it's the telecom company or the power company dropped the ball. All you know is: You don't have 911 service," he added.