FCC: Wireless providers must offer text-to-911 by end of 2014

All wireless carriers and certain texting applications will be required to support text-to-911 functionality by the end of 2014, according to rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission late last week.

The rules ensure that by December, should any call center request text-to-911 functionality, providers will comply within six months. Currently, text-to-911 functionality is scattered among 100 call centers in 16 states; Vermont and Maine are the only states where emergency texting is available statewide.

Wireless providers also will have to send automatic reply messages instructing consumers to call 911 in areas where call centers have not adopted the texting functionality.

The idea behind the requirement is to give consumers more options for emergency outreach. In its announcement, the FCC points out that 48 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, while 7.5 million have speech disabilities.

In May 2013, the four largest U.S. wireless carriers--AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon--agreed to make text-to-911 service available to their customers by May 15, 2014.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the service "a lifesaver," citing several examples of the effectiveness of text-to-911 service in remarks about the ruling.

"Text messaging has become increasingly utilized by mobile users, and it should be able to serve those consumers in a time of need," Wheeler said.

In dissenting from the ruling, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said that the consequences of 911 technologies not matching consumer expectations could be "tragic." The order, he said, "encourages the public to dive into text-to-911 functionality when in reality, there's hardly any water in the pool," and could cause "massive" confusion if consumers believe that call centers are required accept text messages.

"Less than 2 percent of our nation's 911 call centers ... accept text messages," Pai said. "So 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 added that there's no guarantee the service will work even in areas with text-to-911 functionality.

"If your phone is roaming, text-to-911 won't work," he said. "If your device happens to be in Wi-Fi-only mode, our rules won't apply. If you have a data plan that allows you to text, but no SMS subscription, your text to 911 won't go through."

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, concurred in part with Pai, calling the decision "hasty."

"Successful technology development involves in-depth analysis and planning, software design cycles and rigorous testing," O'Rielly said. "Some, however, appear completely comfortable in placing blind faith in artificial deadlines. The theory seems to be: if we mandate it, the technology will come. Technology development, however, cannot be premised on a 1980s Kevin Costner movie about baseball."

To learn more:
- here's the announcement (.pdf)
- read Wheeler's statement (.pdf)
- here's Pai's statement (.pdf)
- check out O'Rielly's statement (.pdf)