FCC passes new text-to-911 rules

While just two percent of Americans have access to text-to-911 services -- and not all commissioners support the idea -- new FCC rules promise wider deployment.

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The Federal Communications Commission on Aug. 8 adopted new rules requiring all wireless carriers and text message application providers that operate over cellular networks to support text-to-911 by the end of 2014.

As the name indicates, text-to-911 functionality enables individual seeking aid from first responders to send text messages to 911. The tool is potentially critical for users with speech and hearing impairments and those in emergencies where a voice call might be ill-advised, as in an active shooter situation.

The deadline reported in the FCC order is potentially misleading, however. The technology currently is deployed to just a handful of dispatch centers -- known as public safety answering points or PSAPs. All PSAPs in Maine and Vermont handle 911 texts; the remaining deployments are scattered across the country, with concentrations in Indiana, Texas, and 14 other states. All told, only about two percent of the population currently has access to text-to-911 services. Early efforts were backed by the four major U.S. wireless carriers, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, on a volunteer basis.

The new rules make compliance with text-to-911 protocols mandatory for all providers. Under the order, carriers have six months to deploy text-to-911 to PSAPs that request it.

But provider compliance alone won't make text-to-911 a reality -- that is up to states and local jurisdictions. Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai made that point in his dissent, noting that, "in your moment of need, if you try texting 911 in over 98 percent of the country, you won't reach emergency personnel no matter what application you use."

Pai wants the FCC to hold off on issuing rules on interactive emergency services until the transition to an all Internet Protocol-based communications networks that supports next-generation 911 services. "SMS has inherent limitations that, for 911 purposes, render it inappropriate for use as anything other than an interim, stop-gap measure."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler dismissed those concerns. "Yes call 911 if you can, but if you can't, what are you going to do," Wheeler said in unscripted remarks that referenced the oral statements of the Republican commissioners. "I guess we could sit here and wait until everything is worked out.... But if one life is one too many, as we have heard today [from Commissioner Pai] what do we explain to that life, or to his or her relatives? That we'd figured we'd sit here and wait until the best of all possible worlds was possible? We're not doing that."

The rules cover carriers and embedded text applications, like Apple's iMessage, that work on mobile networks and are known as "over the top" services. They do not apply to message services in Twitter or Facebook or the popular Whatsapp tool recently acquired by Facebook, and even texts from a embedded app like iMessage would not be covered when sent from a device connected to wi-fi but not to cellular networks. Also, as several commissioners pointed out, the quality of the location information contained in SMS messages varies widely, and there is no guarantee that responders will be able to pinpoint the location of an emergency caller.

The FCC does have rules in place that require text messaging providers to send alert texts to users
who attempt to text 911 in areas where the service does not exist.

Bob Quinn, head of the federal regulatory group at AT&T, noted in a blog post that, "While smart lawyers at the agency will know which text providers fit the definition and which don't, I am not certain those distinctions will be obvious to the hundreds of millions of consumers downloading texting applications." Quinn is also concerned that 911 support requirements could impinge on the ability of carriers to move from SMS messaging to IP-based tools.

In addition to the rule on text-to-911 support, the FCC also voted up a notice of proposed rulemaking to collect comments on the future of text-to-911 and other enhanced emergency services, with an eye to delivering location information on users and roaming support.

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