As telecommunications carriers, cable operators and broadcasters began the process of restoring communications services lost last weekend in the wake of Hurricane Irma, members of the U.S. Senate passed the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters (SANDy) Act (S. 102), which would facilitate telecommunications provider access to disaster sites in times of emergency. News of Monday’s Senate vote came as the FCC confirmed outages from Irma which impacted 27.4% of cell sites throughout Florida, 19.4% of cell sites in Puerto Rico and 55.1% in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (The agency also reported Monday that at least 7.5 million cable and wireline phone service subscribers had been left without service in Florida.)

Adopted by unanimous consent, S. 102 mirrors a parallel bill (HR 588) that was introduced by ranking House Energy & Commerce Committee member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and that passed the House in January. Like the Pallone bill, the Senate version, sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to expand the list of “essential” service providers that would be given access to disaster areas “to restore and repair essential services in an emergency . . . without being denied or impeded by a federal agency.” Wireline and mobile telephone service, Internet access service, radio and television broadcasting, cable, and direct broadcast satellite service providers would be classified as “essential providers” pursuant to the SANDy Act. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would be directed to encourage the adoption of mutual aid agreements “recognizing the credentials of essential service providers.”

Within 36 months of the bill’s enactment, the FCC would be required to report to Congress on the “public safety benefits, technical feasibility, and cost” of mandating public access to 911 services during major disasters through Wi-Fi access points, technologies using unlicensed spectrum, and other alternate means when mobile network service is unavailable. The General Accountability Office, meanwhile, would be directed to report on (1) how executive departments can ensure that essential communications services remain operational during emergencies, (2) recommended steps Congress may take in promoting the resiliency of essential communications services, and (3) whether a nationwide directory of points of contact among providers of essential communications services is needed to facilitate rapid restoration of services. 

Welcoming the Senate vote, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel emphasized that “weather-related emergencies and other disasters can occur anywhere at any time, and this legislation comes not a moment too soon.” As he called for the measure’s “quick signature into law,” National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Dennis Wharton proclaimed: “as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have demonstrated, hometown radio and TV stations play a lifesaving role as first informers . . . and this legislation will provide local broadcasters with access to vital resources to stay on the air when disaster strikes.”