Federal regulators took steps Friday to pave the way for consumers to text 911 for help, but widespread availability of that service could still be several years away.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to require all wireless carriers to provide text-to-911 SMS services within the next year and proposed expanding that requirement to cover some Internet-based text messaging services as well, such as popular apps like iMessage.
“Texting is now as important a function on a mobile device as talking. Some of those text messages are cries for help,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Some of those are from people who can’t hear or speak. Call 911 if you can. But if you can’t, what are you going to do?”
The federal government has been trying to push for better 911 access on wireless phones for several years with mixed results. But the text-to-911 effort got a major boost earlier this year when AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon voluntarily began providing the service in mid-May.
Problem is, only 121 U.S. counties have 911 call centers that can receive those texts, which have to include the sender’s location information. Not a single county in California, for example, has the ability to process 911 texts, according to the government.
“Less than two percent of our nation’s 911 call centers accept text messages. Two percent. In your moment of need, if you try to reach 911, you won’t reach it no matter what application you use,” said Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who said the FCC’s new texting proposal is going to prompt more confusion and raise consumer expectations.
If a local call center can’t accept the text message, wireless carriers are required to send a “bounce back” message telling the subscriber to call 911.
Texting to 911 could be a useful way to get help in some circumstances, such as natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, when it’s almost impossible to complete a wireless call. It’s also something the hearing- and speech-impaired community has sought for some time.
But it probably still isn’t a great option in most emergency situations because it’s almost always faster to talk to someone on the phone than peck out a message on a touchscreen keyboard.
Operators at 911 call centers also may need more information about where you are because cellphones don’t generally transmit your exact location to emergency responders if you’re inside a multistory building.
The FCC on Friday mostly just expanded the big wireless’ carriers voluntary agreement to provide text-to-911 services to cover smaller wireless carriers as well. The agency also said that Internet-based text messaging services like Apple’s iMessage or Text Free — which run over the Internet — would be required to offer texting to 911 services, by connecting through existing SMS services.
That provision could be problematic, however, since it’s not clear the FCC has authority to tell app developers what features to include in their products. Unlike the wireless carriers, app developers don’t hold government licenses, so it’s harder for the FCC to assert authority over them. Also, the FCC’s new rules would only apply to Internet-based text messaging services that are set up to send texts to phone numbers. That could be confusing for consumers who use the services and don’t know (or care) about how their texts are routed.
The large wireless carriers have also raised objections to the new rules, partly out of concerns that they might be held responsible (and liable) if an Internet-based texting app’s 911 service doesn’t work.