SANDY Act Aims to Improve Communication During Disasters

By Briana Vannozzi

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the state most were left without power or cell service. They had no way to call 911, or even tune into the news. Three years later, Congressman Frank Pallone says we’re still ill prepared to handle communication during a natural disaster, so he’s introduced the SANDY Act.

“This is addressing just the fact that certain systems were not resilient in the storm, but there also was the issue of interoperability,” he said.

During an emergency, Pallone’s bill will enable cell phone users to access other network carriers if theirs fails; increase coordination among wireless carriers, utilities and public safety personnel; create 911 capabilities for Wi-Fi hotspots; and ensure rapid repairs by TV, phone and radio service providers across state lines.

“If you had Verizon you couldn’t use AT&T or vice versa so one of the things we’re talking about is being able to use another network with your cell phone if your network is not operating,” Pallone said.

The FCC has been working with areas hard hit by Sandy to improve resiliency. But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said intervention by the federal government would go a long way toward realizing the goals.

“I think we can do better. I think we need to because one thing is for certain — Mother Nature’s wrath will hit us again,” she said.

When Sandy hit New Jersey, one in four cell towers went down. And in the hardest hit areas of the state as many as 40 percent were knocked down and stayed that way for several weeks.

How effective would Wi-Fi hotspots would be, when you’re talking about New Jersey and barrier islands, the closest hotspots wouldn’t help people in those areas. “You’re right. That’s actually part of a study it would task the commission with doing,” Rosenworcel said.

Pallone is proposing an expansive study on the future of network resiliency. He says he expects it would take a year or two to carry out these plans once the bill passes, but doesn’t have an estimate on cost.

“There are more and more natural disasters occurring all the time, and they seem to be more severe all the time. So we need to be prepared and this effort to deal with the communications sector is an important part of that,” he said.

He’s proposed increasing airwaves to network carriers and says increasing bandwidth to meet those demands isn’t off the table. The bill prepares for the future of communication and natural disaster, because Pallone says the only certainty is that we will see it again.