On the heels of a May 24 House vote approving the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters (SANDY) Act (H.R. 3998), Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced companion legislation last Friday that would classify all types of communications services—wireline, wireless, fixed and mobile broadband, direct broadcast satellite, cable, and broadcast radio and television—as “critical” services with access to disaster sites during weather and other emergencies.

Introduced last November by ranking House Energy and Commerce Committee member Frank Pallone (D-NJ), H.R. 3998 offers a variety of solutions to avert or mitigate network outages in the wake of natural or manmade disasters.  The bill would mandate increased coordination among wireless carriers, utilities and public safety officials while enabling consumers to place wireless calls on another carrier’s network in the event their own network breaks down.  H.R. 3998 would also (1) prescribe “a process to provide 911 services over Wi-Fi hotspots during emergencies,” and (2) amend the Robert T. Stafford Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to expand the definition of “critical” telecommunications services.  While H.R. 3998 would further direct the FCC to report to Congress on the provision of mobile carrier outage data to public safety answering points (PSAPs) in times of emergency, House members decided to drop provisions that would have required the FCC to launch proceedings to address wireless network roaming during disasters.  

The Senate version of the SANDY Act includes all of the aforementioned provisions of H.R. 3998 and would also amend the Stafford Act to authorize federal assistance to restore or establish temporary communications services in times of disaster.  Unlike H.R. 3998, however, the Senate measure would also (1) require the FCC to conduct proceedings to establish a master point-of-contact directory for effective communications between PSAPs and communications service providers, and (2) require the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress within 18 months on recommended federal agency actions “to better ensure critical telecommunications networks remain operational during times of emergency.”  

As he stated that the goal of the Senate measure is to “help us better prepare for times of natural disaster,” Booker remarked: “we must do more to ensure our communities can connect when disaster strikes.”  Stressing that broadcasters “play a lifeline role in keeping audiences out of harm’s way,” National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Dennis Wharton praised the bill as one that enables “local radio and television stations to access necessary resources to stay on the air during times of emergency.”