The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules on Friday requiring all wireless carriers and some texting apps to be capable of supporting texts to 911 emergency call centers by the end of the year.
In addition to covering wireless carriers, the rules cover texting apps that can send messages to any phone number, but they don’t cover those whose texts are limited to other users of the app. It also wouldn’t cover texts from Wi-Fi-only locations.
“Texting is now as important a function on mobile device as talking,” FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said. “And some of those text messages are cries for help. And some of those cries for help are from individuals who can’t hear or speak.”
The four top wireless carriers – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – have already agreed to provide text-to-911 service in areas where call centers are able to receive them. Wheeler applauded the four, but said their voluntary step hasn’t resulted in other carriers doing the same thing. Thus the reason for the rules.
“Unfortunately,” Wheeler said, “a lot of time has passed since those carriers stepped up and did something voluntarily and the other carriers serving the consumers of America did not.”
“The message here… is that the voluntarism was fabulous,” he said, but other carriers not acting has then“forced us to go across the entire industry.”
In opposing the rules, Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican appointee, said they would cause consumer confusion and end up harming public safety. He said media coverage would give people the impression that they could text 911 but that only two percent of the country’s 911 call centers accept text messages.
“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 said. “Nothing in this order will change that fact anytime soon.”
He also contended that the rules don’t guarantee that a text would go through to 911 even where 911 call centers accept text. For example, he said, they don’t covering texts sent from devices on Wi-Fi only modes and they don’t apply to apps like the popular WhatsApp, where users message other users. He said the commission was adopting a “patchwork approach that exposes consumers to numerous pitfalls.”