FCC orders bounce-back messages until text-to-911 service is available

New rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission require all wireless carriers and "interconnected" text messaging services to provide an automatic "bounce-back" text message to consumers who attempt to send a text message to 911 in a location where text-to-911 is not available, the FCC announced on Friday. As a result of the rules, a text sender will receive an immediate response that text-to-911 is not supported along with direction to use another means to contact emergency services, such as placing a voice call to 911.

These rules will "substantially reduce the risk of a person sending a text message to 911 in an emergency and mistakenly believing that 911 authorities have received it," the FCC says. Although deployment of Next Generation 911--including text-to-911 service--already is underway, the commission warns that the transition is still in the very early stages and will not be uniform.

"During the transition, text-to-911 will be available in certain geographic areas sooner than others and may be supported by some service providers and 911 call centers but not others," FCC officials said. "In addition, as text-to-911 becomes more widely available, it is likely to raise consumer expectations as to its availability, which makes it increasingly important for the public to know when the service is not available in an emergency."

Under the new rules, wireless carriers and "interconnected" text message providers who offer software applications that enable consumers to send text messages to--and receive text messages from--all or substantially all text-capable U.S. telephone numbers will be required to implement the bounce-back capability no later than Sept. 30. However, this requirement does not apply to certain text message applications that reach only a defined set of users, such as those within games and social media.

"Today's FCC action addresses only the provision of bounce-back messages," FCC officials said. "The FCC will address text-to-911 implementation at a later date."

Nevertheless, the four largest U.S. wireless carriers--AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon--already have voluntarily committed to providing bounce-back messaging capability by June 30. In addition, those carriers also have agreed to make text-to-911 service available to their customers by May 15, 2014, in areas where the local 911 call center is prepared to receive the texts.

In April, the Government Accountability Office reported that states have made significant progress in implementing wireless Enhanced 911 (E911), the capability of 911 call takers to automatically receive location information from callers using mobile phones. According to GAO, nearly 98 percent of 911 call centers are capable of receiving location information under E911. This represents a significant improvement since 2003 when implementation was only 65 percent.

To learn more:
- read the announcement

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