(Caution: I read the article.)
Sounds like a pretty good idea, all-told. An engineer does good with his PhD thesis, starting a non-profit company to create inexpensive MEMS-based earthquake sensors that use the cellular network for communication. Makes them cheap enough that he can deploy them all over the place. But who pays for upkeep? Who pays for electricity?
Here, we get to the problem: he depends on the kindness of strangers to bolt these small devices to their wall and plug them in -- permanently -- to an available outlet. Why would sufficiently many people do that? And since the dwelling turnover in California is so high (at least compared to the other cities I've lived in, CA residents seem to switch apartments at a furious pace), what's the plan for transferring ownership / upkeep agreements? WIth tens of thousands of sensors, that sounds like an ongoing, permanent customer service management nightmare.
Don't get me wrong, the idea's a good one. It might be easier to convince people to download an app that looks for tell tale acceleration signatures of a quake. Cell phones already have location information and the owners are already motivated for other reasons to keep them charged and maintained. The potential downside is that the data quality is likely much lower since cell phones aren't rigidly attached to terra firma.
But that, then, suggests perhaps a dual layer system that includes some company-maintained (he's running a business, after-all) sensors, say installed in a less dense mesh on telephone poles or street lights where they have ready access to (a) rigid fixation, and (b) electrical power, and, importantly, (c) won't be screwed with by the dog / kid / furniture mover. Moreover, upright structures with high aspect ratios, like streetlights, likely amplify ground movement, making detection that much easier. Use that streetlight network for coarse sampling, and the voluntarily downloaded apps as lower-grade, spatially denser sampling. And then, as Randall Munroe suggests in XKCD, monitor the twitterverse for earthquake terms. The apps have next to zero running costs, perhaps only sporadic development and a download server somewhere, the mesh network installation costs can be split between local municipalities, the state, and the NSF, with a maintenance contract to the company from the state. Heck, I'm starting to talk myself into a good business plan!
But depending on the kindness of strangers to install and maintain a thing in their house? Not such a good idea.