FCC accelerates Text-to-911 service by four major carriers

Text-to-911 to start savings lives next year
Text-to-911 to start savings lives next year

Texting 911 in an emergency is going to be an option for U.S. wireless consumers sooner than expected.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced yesterday that the nation's four major wireless carriers are strapping on a siren, agreeing to accelerate the service's 2013 roll out.

"Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement.

So far, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have signed on to be part of this 2013-bound Next Generation 911 system.

"I am pleased that the nation's four largest wireless carriers and leading public safety organizations have responded with today's commitment, which will save lives starting in 2013."

Text-to-911 timeline

This agreement will accelerate the Text-to-911 program, ensuring that 90 percent of the nation's wireless customers can send messages to their local 911 call centers next year.

"We will take additional steps, including closely monitoring carriers' compliance with the commitments they have made today," said Genachowski in a speech to the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Genachowski also laid out plans for advanced messaging services like enabling transmission of photos and video to 911 centers.

By May 15, 2014, the Text-to-911 program is scheduled to be available nationwide.

Benefits of Text-to-911

The FCC made the case for this texting service, citing the benefits to the variety of people who may be unable to make a voice call.

"Text-to-911 will provide consumers with enhanced access to emergency communications in situations where a voice call could endanger the caller, or a person with disabilities is unable to make a voice call."

This would give millions of consumers with hearing or speech disabilities a new way to access emergency services, according to the FCC.

However, the independent government agency stressed that Text-to-911 is supposed to be a complement to, not a substitute for, 911 voice calls.

Mailer-Daemon strikes again

During the phase-in period of Text-to-911, carriers will notify emergency-seeking texters if their message was not received via a "bounce back" text message.

Akin to a mailer-daemon non-delivery receipt, this automatic rejection message would instruct recipients to make a voice call to 911 instead.

The four major U.S. carriers are supposed to fully implement this "bounce back" capability by June 30, 2013.

Next week, the FCC says it will address Text-to-911 plans for over-the-top providers who offer internet-based text services, which will help bring that nationwide coverage goal closer to 100 percent.

Matt Swider