By a 3-2 vote along party lines, the FCC adopted a Report and Order last Friday that requires wireless carriers and interconnected, over-the-top (OTT) providers of texting services to deploy text-to-911 capability by the end of this year. The order codifies a voluntary agreement on text-to-911 services that was signed by public safety groups and the four national wireless carriers in 2012. In accordance with that pact, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile US satisfied a May 15 deadline for certifying the capability of their networks to deploy text-to-911 services to public safety answering points (PSAPs). The order also follows on the release of a policy statement and related rulemaking notice in January through which the FCC sought to require text-to-911 capabilities for smaller carriers and interconnected OTT text service providers.

At last Friday’s FCC open meeting, David Simpson, the chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, remarked that since the adoption of January’s policy statement and rulemaking notice, the number of PSAPs capable of receiving text-to-911 transmissions had surged from 45 PSAPs in 14 states to 121 across 18 states. Highlighting Friday’s order as “a game changer for those who are deaf or have speech difficulties,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel emphasized that “texting-to-911 can save lives.” The FCC further noted in a press release that the rules reflect the popularity of texting services, which are used by 70% of wireless subscribers and can serve as an alternative in emergency situations when voice networks are congested or when a 911 voice call would endanger the caller.

As prescribed by the order, all wireless carriers and interconnected OTT text providers must deploy text-to-911 capability by the end of this year and, thereafter, must provide text-to-911 connectivity to any PSAP within six months of a valid PSAP request. PSAPs may register to receive text-to-911 service through a central database, and PSAPs and carriers may agree to implement alternative deployment timeframes without FCC consent. The rules do not apply to IP-based relay services, Wi-Fi-only locations, in-flight texting services, private messaging apps and similar non-interconnected services. Meanwhile, in a companion further rulemaking notice, the FCC is soliciting input on whether the rules should be extended to Wi-Fi only networks and to non-interconnected OTT texting providers. The FCC is also requesting comment on proposals that would require carriers to deliver what the agency termed as “best available” location information within text-to-911 messages and support text-to-911 roaming.

Both FCC Republicans, Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, dissented on grounds that the order lacks statutory authority and imposes arbitrary deadlines. Pai added that the order has the potential to “result in massive consumer confusion.”