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GAO, Democratic Leaders: More Must Be Done to Improve Communications Networks During Disasters

Dec 16, 2015
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed that more must be done at the federal level to strengthen our nation’s communications networks to ensure that they are reliable during times of crisis.  The report, which specifically reviewed the resiliency of emerging Internet Protocol (IP) telephone networks, comes at the request of Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

As the communications sector transitions from legacy networks to IP-based networks, there is growing concern about how communications networks will function during and in the aftermath of disasters. While GAO noted that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and telecommunications carriers have taken various steps to ensure the reliability of IP communications, the nonpartisan agency ultimately concluded in its report that more must be done to ensure that networks are resilient during disasters.  The GAO recommended that the FCC strengthen its data collection efforts to assess the IP transition’s effects.

“When a storm hits, residents must know that they will be able to call for help and connect with friends and loved ones,” said Congressman Pallone.  “Natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy are threatening our nation’s critical infrastructure, and as global climate change produces more frequent and intense weather events, improving network resiliency must be our priority.  This report confirms that we must do more to ensure that we are prepared when disaster strikes, and I hope that the FCC will heed these recommendations to protect public safety.” 

“Our citizens expect first responders will be there when they need help – making it all the more critical that present and future communications networks, such as 911, are resilient and rapidly restored after natural or manmade disasters,” said Senator Nelson.  “I expect that the FCC will take the report’s recommendations seriously and redouble its efforts to ensure that public safety remains front and center as communication technologies continue to evolve.”
In its report, GAO found that as carriers switch to IP networks they face “challenges during times of crisis that affect end users’ ability to call 911 and receive emergency communications.”  The GAO also reported that during “Hurricane Sandy and the immediate aftermath, networks were congested due to damage and high call volume into and out of the storm-damaged area.”

Last month, in an effort to improve access to communications systems, Ranking Member Pallone introduced the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters (SANDy) Act.  The legislation would help to ensure the resiliency of the nation’s communications systems during emergency situations.    Among other things, the bill would make sure that, during an emergency, consumer cell phones work on other carriers’ networks if their own network goes down, giving priority to calls to 9-1-1 services and emergency alerts; increase coordination between wireless carriers, utilities, and public safety officials; and begin a process to provide 911 services over Wi-Fi hotspots during emergencies.