By voice vote, members of the Senate Commerce Committee approved a pair of bills Wednesday that would bolster the reliability of telecommunications networks in times of emergency and address issues of call completion in rural areas. Committee adoption of the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters (SANDY) Act (S. 2997) follows the vote of House members in favor of a similar bill that mandates 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. Both bills prescribe processes to provide 911 services over Wi-Fi networks in times of emergency and amend the Robert T. Stafford Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to expand the definition of “critical” telecommunications services. S. 2997 would also (1) require the FCC to conduct proceedings to establish a master point-of-contact directory to facilitate communications between public safety answering points and communications service providers, and (2) require the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress within 18 months on recommended actions “to better ensure critical telecommunications networks remain operational during times of emergency.” The Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act (S. 827) would direct the FCC to set basic quality standards for network operators in an effort to reduce dropped calls and call transmission failures in rural areas. An amendment offered by bill sponsor Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) would give the FCC one year to adopt service quality standards instead of six months as stated in the original bill.
With respect to the SANDY Act, committee chairman John Thune (R-SD) predicted that “strong support in the House for a similar bill will pave [the] way for passage this year.” As Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of rural broadband association NTCA, praised the committee’s passage of S. 827 as “an important milestone,” the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners remarked that the measure “will help ensure the service level rural communities receive is equal to that of their urban counterparts.”