The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed rules to enable faster and more uniform text messages to 911, as well as inform consumers about the availability and appropriate use of text-to-911. The proposed action builds on previous FCC initiatives and recent voluntary commitment from the four largest wireless carriers in the United States, with the support of leading public safety organizations, to make text-to-911 available to their customers by May 15, 2014, with significant deployments in 2013. And, the FCC also seeks to accelerate the nation’s transition to a next-generation 911 system.

In its Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC proposed to require all wireless carriers as well as the providers of certain Internet-based (“over the top”) text messaging applications to enable their customers to send text messages to 911 in areas where local 911 call centers are prepared to receive them. With these provisions in mind, the FCC is seeking comment on whether this timeframe is achievable for all carriers and third-party messaging providers.

According to the FCC, text-to-911 can provide a lifesaving alternative in situations where a person with a hearing or speech disability is unable to make a voice call, where voice networks are congested, or where a 911 call could endanger the caller. At the same time, the FCC emphasized that text-to-911 will complement, not replace or substitute for, existing voice-based 911 service and that consumers should always make a voice call to 911 when they can.

Most of today’s text messages are Short Message Service (SMS) messages supported by a wireless carrier, though more and more consumers are using newer Internet-based forms of text messaging applications known as “over the top” text messaging that can be downloaded onto smart phones and other mobile devices. By proposing to extend text-to-911 requirements to certain “over the top” applications—those that send text messages to phone numbers but not, for example, within games and social media—the FCC’s proposal would ensure that as text messaging evolves, consumers will be able to reach 911 by the same texting methods they use every day.

Further, the FCC recognized that while its proposal is designed to accelerate nationwide availability of text-to-911, deployment won’t be uniform, and consumers will need to be informed during the transition about whether text-to-911 is available in their local area. To educate consumers and prevent confusion, the FCC proposed to require all wireless carriers and certain “over the top” text messaging providers to send automated “bounce back” error messages to consumers attempting to text 911 is areas where the service isn’t yet available. The error message would indicate that the text did not reach 911 and that the consumer should instead place a voice call to 911 if possible. The nation’s four largest wireless carriers have agreed to provide these automatic “bounce back” messages across their networks by June 20, 2013. The FCC is seeking comment on whether it’s feasible for all carriers and third-party messaging providers to implement this same “bounce back” capability in this timeframe.

Federal Communications Commission