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Commentary: Power Shutoffs May Challenge Tech Recovery from Pandemic

Even as we work and learn remotely and try to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Internet providers and telecom carriers must look ahead to the looming threat of summertime power shutoffs. Planning is the key.

Over a month has passed since many employers migrated a large portion of employees to telecommuting because of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) health concerns and to meet state requirements for social distancing. With this has come an evolution in VPN and remote access to resources.

Other than minor slowness at times, it seems most systems have been able to handle these changes. Many VPN, cloud and hosted resources have been able to scale and/or be adjusted to permit these new requirements. For some systems and applications already in the cloud — at Placer County, we use Workday and ServiceNow, for example — performance remains the same. However, things run smoothly only for those with enough bandwidth to support such requirements. Others with less bandwidth and ISP limitations, many in rural areas, find issues with connectivity during the surge of employees needing remote access. On top of that is the need to supply children with more remote access for distance learning. 

These demands — coupled with television streaming, telecommunications and more at-home Internet of Things devices — put more demands on network connections to homes. The next test will be whether ISPs can support additional requests and requirements for larger bandwidth for a longer term than previously intended.

To add to these problems, Northern California is reaching the point when PG&E will once again start the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program. After a chaos of outages last year when cellular carriers, ISPs and other providers failed, the question remains: How will the infrastructure hold up this year? Will ISPs have power backups to provide us with service so we can continue to function?

As any government agency should, Placer County IT was able to sustain the outages without service interruptions. After last year, many people jumped into action and purchased generators or had them installed to support their families, refrigeration — and now, more than ever, work and school. Therefore, our main concern should be whether we can still work and educate our children remotely. Will we have Internet, phones and other essential services during power outages?

We can only hope the COVID-19 curve flattens or drops, allowing social distancing and distance learning to recede over the summer, but if not, we need to have a plan for educators and employers. What tools have proven to be successful? Which can be added to environments for more long-term remote support?

Vendors and service providers must keep in mind that planning starts now for PSPS preparation. It would be a shame to say we cannot prevent such concerns in 2020! I believe we have learned enough to prevent such chaos from occurring again this year. More than ever, we need to have 20/20 clarity and keep our technological capabilities moving forward.

Benjamin Palacio is a Senior IT Analyst on the ESSG-Enterprise Solutions Team in the Placer County Information Technology Department and is a CSAC-credentialed IT Executive. The views expressed here are his own. He may be reached at