Man texting for help in front of a brush fire

Next steps in making text-to-911 a reality

The nation’s four major wireless carriers have committed to delivering text messages to 911 emergency answering points by May 2014, and the Federal Communications Commission is considering rules that would expand the requirement to smaller carriers and to third-party texting service providers.

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The FCC calls the ability to send emergency text messages a “crucial step” in the transition to Next Generation 911, which eventually would allow delivery of the full suite of IP communications, including images, video and data, to Public Safety Answering Points.

“Our proposal . . . will vastly enhance the system’s accessibility for over 40 million Americans with hearing or speech disabilities,” the FCC said in a notice of proposed rules issued in December. “It will also provide a vital and lifesaving alternative to the public in situations where 911 voice service is unavailable or placing a voice call could endanger the caller.”

There have been a handful of trials and early implementations of text-to-911, dating back to 2009 in Black Hawk County, Iowa. Since then AT&T has tested it in Tennessee, and Verizon Wireless in partnership with 911 services provider Intrado has implemented it in Durham, N.C., the state of Vermont and several other jurisdictions.

But because text messages are routed differently than voice calls, most 911 systems today do not support text-to-911, although many consumers are not aware of this and sometimes try to text emergency messages. To address this issue, the FCC in May enacted one of the proposed rules, requiring text service providers to produce bounce-back error messages where text-to-911 is not supported by the local PSAP, advising users to place a voice call instead. Major wireless carriers already had agreed to do this, and under the new rule all carriers will begin providing error messages by June 28.

In May 2012, Verizon Wireless announced plans to deploy text-to-911 capability throughout its nationwide network in 2013, and AT&T made a similar announcement the next month. In December, these two carriers along with Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile entered a voluntary agreement along with the National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials to provide text-to-911 service to any PSAP requesting it by May 15, 2014.

While this is a major step toward enabling emergency text services, the agreement has limitations. It covers only Short Message Service messages provided by the four carriers. Although SMS is the most common text format, the FCC says there are a growing number of text applications that can be downloaded for mobile devices for what it calls “over the top” messaging that does not use the carriers’ networks but can interconnect with other phone systems. The proposed rules would expand text-to-911 requirements by the May 2014 deadline to such interconnect text services that send messages to phone numbers (rather than within closed systems such as games or social media) and to all regional, local and rural wireless carriers.

The voluntary agreement would not include roaming, and users would have to be in their carrier’s network to use the service. Also, each implementation of the service will be unique to the carrier or its gateway service provider. The FCC proposal would standardize the services.

The big carriers, although ready to begin rolling out text-to-911 services, are hesitant about expanding the requirements of their voluntary agreement.

“The agreement reflects what is technically feasible and is a reasonable interim measure until IP-enabled NG911 services become more widely available,” Verizon Wireless said in response to the FCC proposal. The FCC should ensure that any new rules stick to what is now technically feasible, and it should allow industry and PSAPs to develop needed standards and best practices, the company said. “Industry and public safety stakeholders already are coordinating text-to-911 deployment and, in Verizon’s experience, have been able to constructively and amicably resolve technical and other issues that have arisen.”

Whatever the FCC’s decision on the new rules, they would address only half of the equation in delivering the new service. Availability of text-to-911 to consumers will depend on the ability of PSAP’s to adopt the capability, and this will depend on political and budgetary issues outside the FCC’s control as well as on technology.

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