By Kurtis Ming

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Long before Public Safety Power Shutoffs, Call Kurtis Investigates questioned phone companies on what they’re doing to make sure people in the line of wildfire have means to communicate.

We started asking the questions when phone companies started pushing people off traditional copper landlines toward digital service. There’s a lifesaving difference between the two. Copper landlines work when the power is cut while digital service requires backup power.

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“You pick up the phone and you don’t get a dial tone,” said viewer Steve Truax in 2016, after it took AT&T weeks to restore his landline service after an outage.

“You need to have a lifeline,” said Frontier customer Jennifer Morelos. “You need to have a phone.”

Morelos also reported intermittent landline service to us in 2016.

At the time, we raised the very issue of fire danger to phone companies. If your landline doesn’t work, will your closest cell tower once the power is cut?

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People in the North Bay reported losing cell service and not receiving lifesaving text messages during the 2019 fires.  As the death toll climbs in Butte County, we wonder if those killed had any phone service, and did they know they were in imminent danger?

The Utility Reform Network has pushed for reliable phone service in remote communities.

“It’s literally a lifeline for people. It could be a matter of life or death,” said TURN Executive Director Mark Toney.

With a burned backdrop in Oroville, CBS13 questioned Governor Gavin Newsom what he’s doing to make sure people in remote areas have communication when they need it most.  He said the Public Utilities Commission and state lawmakers have pushed for back up power at cell towers.

In fact, the PUC voted this summer to require backup power for towers in high-risk fire zones by next July. However, the cell carriers are challenging the regulations.

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“We will continue to do more in that space,” Newsom said.  “Made a little progress.  We have more work to do in that space.“