Feds to mandate 'text-to-911' rules for apps

Regulators are working to make sure cellphone users can reach 911, even in situations where they can't make a call.

Next week, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on requiring wireless companies and messaging apps to allow cellphone users to send texts to 911 by the end of the year.

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But tech companies and others are questioning whether the proposed rules go beyond the agency's jurisdiction and if emergency call centers are ready for the changes.

In a July blog post announcing next week’s vote, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler defended the agency’s rules.

“In the case of text-to-911, it is time for the Commission to act,” he said.

Wheeler pointed to the wireless companies and apps that do not yet allow users to send texts to 911, as well as the majority of the emergency call centers — which fall outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction — that cannot receive texts.

“When you consider how Americans increasingly rely on text as a primary means of communication, and the approximately 48 million Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing and 7.5 million Americans with speech disabilities, all of whom are even more reliant on text, these shortcomings are unacceptable,” he said.

Earlier this year, the FCC voted on a policy statement regarding text-to-911, which Wheeler hailed as a step forward for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

When that item passed, Wheeler said — signing along in American Sign Language — “this is just the beginning.”

If the Commission approves the order next week, wireless carriers will have to be capable of sending texts to emergency call centers by the end of the year.

The four major wireless companies — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — were text-to-911 capable by May under a voluntary commitment they made in 2012. The FCC’s new rules would ensure that the smaller wireless companies follow suit.

The rules would also apply to “interconnected” texting apps that can send messages to phone numbers — like Apple’s iMessage — on devices that are connected to a wireless carrier’s network. 

Last year, the FCC voted to require carriers and interconnected texting apps to send a bounce back message if a user tries to send a text to 911 but the text cannot be delivered.

The new rules would not apply to texting apps that send messages to registered usernames — like WhatsApp, which was recently acquired by Facebook for $19 billion — or texting apps on devices that are connected to the Internet through a Wi-Fi network.

But some question whether the agency has the authority to regulate apps at all.

The Voice Over the Net Coalition — which represents AT&T, Google, Skype and Vonage — questioned the agency’s jurisdiction in a filing earlier this year.

“There is not a sufficient link between the requirement that [interconnected text] providers provide text-to-911 capability and the Commission’s existing legal authority,” the group said.

The coalition also warned the FCC against creating costly regulatory burdens for text messaging companies.

In a filing last month, Microsoft, which owns Skype, urged the agency to “be cautious not to get ahead of technology.”

“Microsoft believes it is premature to set a date certain by which such apps will be required to provide text-to-911 capability,” the company said.

Instead, the agency should bring companies together to create “a voluntary industry commitment to work toward text-to-911 capability for interconnected apps,” Microsoft said.

On the other side of the issue, the wireless companies don’t want to be held responsible for what the text messaging apps do.

The agency’s new rules would allow the text apps to use the wireless company’s network to deliver messages to 911 call centers.

In a meeting with FCC officials late last month, the four major wireless companies argued that the agency’s new rules should only ensure that companies don’t impede text-to-911 messages sent through an app.

The text message apps should be responsible for making sure the service works on the device and educating users, the companies said.

Critics were also quick to note that many of the country’s emergency call centers also don’t have the equipment or the trained personnel to receive and respond to text messages.

“There’s a ways to go before this is readily available to consumers even though the carriers are ready nationwide,” one wireless industry official said.

The FCC is hoping to change that with its vote next week.

According to an FCC official, one intended result of the new rules will be to encourage the emergency call centers to update their equipment and training once text-to-911 becomes more widely available from wireless companies and apps.

“By providing stability, it will create more incentives for [emergency call centers] to adopt text-to-911,” the official said.

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