Napa County Library

Did you experience a power outage the week of Oct. 8, when fires burned across the North Bay and in Mendocino County? Did you evacuate? Did you have cellphone service? Did the lack of telecommunications make you feel in danger at any point?

These are the types of questions that the Napa County Library, together with the North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium, is asking residents in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties – areas affected by October’s wildfires – to answer.

The answers, which are due by Nov. 30, will then be compiled and sent to county and state organizations as well as providers in hopes that the information will help build better broadband access, says Anthony Halstead, assistant director of library service.

“It sure felt like nobody had cellphone service for a period of time,” Halstead said Wednesday. During that first week of fires, he said, 1,232 people used their own devices to connect to Wi-Fi at the Main Library in Napa. That doesn’t include the number of patrons who used library terminals, he said.

At its peak on Oct. 10 – the Tuesday after the fires began – 491 people connected to library Wi-Fi. The previous two Tuesdays, less than 140 patrons had connected. That same day, more than 100 patrons connected at the Yountville branch, which had fewer than 10 people connect to its Wi-Fi on the two previous Tuesdays.

“We had so many people coming in to use our facilities because they didn’t really have a place to go to connect to the universe,” Halstead said. “We definitely felt (that) people’s need for information was strong,” although their access was hampered by power outages and disruptions in cell service.

Businesses in Napa that still had power also saw an influx of residents attempting to connect during the fires. It wasn’t until midweek that cellphone service started to improve.

Wireless carriers reported some progress reversing the widespread service outages caused by disabled cellular transmitters and destroyed power lines serving them, according to previous Register reports. All four major cellular carriers – Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile US Inc. and AT&T Mobility – reported widespread loss of service after the fires broke out Oct. 8, consuming thousands of acres.

By participating in the survey, residents may be able to help the North Bay North Coast Broadband Consortium better understand gaps in communication networks throughout the region. The Consortium promotes building broadband infrastructure in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties. Part of its purpose is to help bridge the digital divide.

In 2012, state statistics showed that Napa County had “virtually 100 percent broadband coverage,” Halstead said. But even in Napa County, there are gaps, he said. “We believe that there are people living in the county, specifically in the northern part, that have limited to no network (Internet) access.”

In Mendocino County, he said, significantly fewer people have broadband access.

“Mendocino has had two instances where they lost 911 services for a period of time,” he said. That’s why there is a need for redundancies, he said. This means that if a cell tower goes down, another tower can pick up the traffic and residents don’t necessarily lose their connection.

In the past, he said, landlines may have still worked even if the power went out. But today, unless the home still has copper phone lines as opposed to modern fiber or wireless phone lines, the phone lines are lost, too. Many people may not have even known that switching to fiber/wireless phone lines meant they could lose access in an emergency, he said.

It’s one of the questions you might be asked on the survey: Were you aware that if your landline service changed from copper to fiber/wireless technology that your landline telephone service would not work in the event of a power failure?

More than 3,000 people across the three counties have already responded to the survey. As of Tuesday, 1,602 were from Napa County. There were 600 responses on Nov. 15 when the survey was first released in Napa County. The final day to participate is Nov. 30.

The survey, available in English and in Spanish, is online at countyofnapa.org/Library/survey.

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.