Last week, Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a Communications and Technology Subcommittee member, introduced the RESILIENT Networks Act.
The bill is intended to strengthen communications during emergencies. The full title of the bill is “Reinforcing and Evaluating Service Integrity, Local Infrastructure, and Emergency Notification for Today’s Networks Act”
The proposal amends the Communications Act of 1934 to allow “expedient restoration of advanced communications service networks during times of emergency.”
“Ensuring the resiliency and reliability of communications networks is critical to keeping Americans safe during emergencies. This is particularly important with the growing threat of disasters intensified by climate change. Resilient communications networks can mean the difference between life and death during and after a storm or wildfire,” Pallone and McNerney said in a statement. “Our bill requires the creation of stronger, enforceable protections for consumers. This will ensure that Americans have access to vital and lifesaving communications service before, during and after major disasters. We look forward to moving this bill through the Committee process soon.”
The Communications Act of 1934
The intention of the Communications Act of 1934 was to “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”
Of course the Act did not consider internet access. In 1934, most homes didn’t have telephones. The Communications Act required that all telephones be able to call to all other telephones, regardless of the brand or the phone company.
The Act also made rules for emergency networks and 911 assistance.
The RESILIENT Networks Act
The RESILIENT Networks Act builds on the SANDy Act, which was also introduced by Pallone. SANDy made sure that cell phone carriers would carry emergency calls for other carriers disrupted by a natural disaster. It improved coordination among carriers and emergency personnel.
The RESILIENT Networks Act requires telecommunications companies to pre-plan ways to cooperate during emergencies. With pre-existing assistance agreements and shared information, carriers should be better able to fill in for systems that are down.
“Following previous communications emergencies and disasters,” the Act summary points out, “outages have been made worse when critical communications equipment was destroyed as part of other restoration and cleanup efforts.” The new act proposes using the same system currently used to help people avoid cutting gas lines while digging, to protect telecommunications equipment.
The act also includes plans to prioritizer telecommunications equipment in case of power outages.
Reports are also called for. The RESILIENT Networks act requires an audit of the FCC response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a study of the ways in which 5G technology might affect emergency response, and a best-practices document. These items have varying deadlines, but all would be complete within two years of the passage of the Act.
FCC response to Hurricane Maria
The bill notes that many questions remain regarding the FCC’s response in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Could the FCC have done more sooner to restore communications services to the island in the wake of the 2017 hurricane season? Was the response quick enough? How did the response in Puerto Rico in 2017 compare with responses to other disasters?
The act instructs the Comptroller General to conduct an audit of the FCC’s response to the 2017 hurricane season in Puerto Rico and provide a report to Congress on its findings and recommendations, not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of this Act. The act also requires the FCC to commence a proceeding, not later than two years after the date of enactment of this Act, to address the findings and recommendations of the Comptroller General in the report required by the act.