Pallone proposes improved disaster communications

Proposed federal legislation could one day help residents across New Jersey who lose cell phone service and experience power blackouts similar to what occurred during superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-Monmouth, Middlesex) has introduced the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters Act (H.R. 3998) that would, if passed in the House and Senate and signed into law by the president, improve communications and prevent widespread cell phone service outages during disasters.

“It is about trying to improve communication because during Sandy a lot of cell phone towers went down, it was difficult to communicate in general,” Pallone said. “So we are trying to get at that problem.”

The congressman said that the primary aspect of the legislation would ensure that consumer cell phones would work on other carriers’ networks when their carrier goes down.

The act would also give priority to 911 services and emergency alerts, increase coordination between wireless carriers, utilities and public safety officials, and provide 911 services over Wi-Fi hotspots during emergencies.

According to Pallone, during superstorm Sandy, one in four cell phone towers in New Jersey was not functional, and in the hardest hit areas of the state almost half of the towers were not functional.

Pallone said that the initiative would be a multi-faceted approach to improving communications during emergencies.

“The whole idea is to have communications systems to be inter-operable during a storm or any kind of emergency,” he said. “The idea is that systems would kick in during an emergency that would be inter-operable because we had major problems during Sandy.”

The bill, according to Pallone, would launch an expansive study of the future of network resiliency.

“We had a lot of discussions, even in the first days after Sandy, to make power lines more resilient, communications more resilient, so they do not go out,” he said. “Some of the power problems we had during Sandy had actually occurred during previous storms, so the idea is to make the communications infrastructure more resilient so it does not go out during a storm.”

Another component of the bill would ensure that communications providers, including radio, TV and telephone, could repair outages more quickly.

Pallone said the bill is currently in the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is the ranking member.

He said many of the ideas that are contained in the bill came from a recent roundtable discussion in Monmouth Beach that focused on telecommunications, broadcast, social media and first-responder communications and included reps of broadcast, telecommunications and utility companies.

— Kenny Walter