On December 13, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Further Notice) asking for public comment on proposed new text-to-911 requirements. Building on comments filed in response to a September 2011 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (2011 Notice) on a Next Generation 911 (NG911) system, the Further Notice proposes requiring all wireless carriers and providers of “interconnected” text messaging applications to support text messaging to 911 in areas where 911 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are prepared to accept the texts. The Further Notice also asks for comment on various aspects of implementing the 911 texting requirements, including proposed automatic bounce back messages for areas where text-to-911 is not yet available.  

Background

In September 2011, the FCC initiated a proceeding to examine issues related to the deployment of NG911, including the potential for consumers to contact 911 services through texting. The FCC has not yet acted on this 2011 Notice, but in the time since its release several wireless carriers (AT&T, Sprint Nextel, Verizon, and T-Mobile) have entered into a voluntary agreement with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) regarding text-to-911 services. Under the voluntary agreement, these carriers agree to provide text-to-911 services by May 15, 2014 to PSAPs that request the service.1 The agreement also provides that these carriers will implement by June 30, 2013 a “bounce-back” capability that will notify subscribers in areas where text-to-911 is unavailable that they should dial 911 instead. Notably, the agreement only requires these carriers to offer text-to-911 capabilities through existing Short Message Service (SMS) technology, and the service would not be available to subscribers roaming outside their home wireless networks.  

In the Further Notice, the FCC proposes making the above voluntary text-to-911 commitments, with modifications, into mandatory obligations for all wireless carriers as well as providers of “interconnected” text messaging applications. For the purposes of the Further Notice, “text messaging” is defined as “any service that allows a mobile device to send information consisting of text to other mobile devices by using domestic telephone numbers,” including SMS, Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), and “interconnected text” applications. “Interconnected text” providers are defined as “providers of software applications that enable a consumer to send text messages to text-capable U.S. mobile telephone numbers and receive text messages from the same…” This definition is intended to specifically exempt “IP-based messaging applications that support communication with a defined set of users of compatible applications but do not support general communication with text-capable telephone numbers.” The Further Notice specifically cites Facebook’s text messaging application as an example of an exempted service.  

Bounce–Back Requirement and Consumer Education

First, the Further Notice proposes that all wireless providers and other providers of interconnected text messaging services be required to send back automatic notification messages to consumers attempting to text 911 in areas or instances where text-to-911 is not available. The FCC asks for comment on various aspects of this proposal, including whether requiring the bounce-back notification by June 30, 2013 is reasonable.  

Recognizing that significant confusion exists among consumers as to the availability of text-to-911 services, the FCC also announced a consumer education program, to be implemented by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. The Further Notice asks for comment on the issues related to consumer education, including who should be responsible for educating consumers and whether consumers could be given the ability to test text-to-911 functionality in their devices.  

Text-to-911 Requirement

While NG911, as contemplated in the 2011 Notice, will be capable of multiple types of 911 communications, including text messaging, deployment of NG911 likely will take many years. In the near-term, however, the FCC concluded that implementing text-to-911 by itself on an accelerated schedule would yield substantial public safety benefits. Consequently, the Further Notice proposes a mandatory requirement for wireless providers and other interconnected text providers to supply text-to-911 capabilities to their customers on all text-capable devices by May 15, 2014. Wireless providers would be allowed to select any method for text routing and delivery. Although providers would be required to provide the capability, PSAPs would retain the ability to decide whether or not to accept 911 texts.  

The Further Notice asks for comment on all aspects of the text-to-911 proposal, including the proposed time table, technical challenges (especially those faced by over-the-top text applications that can be used on any wireless provider’s network), text routing and location accuracy requirements, and roaming issues. The Further Notice also proposes various options for enabling PSAPs to receive text messages and asks for comment on a mechanism for alerting providers when a specific PSAP is ready to accept emergency texts. According to the Further Notice, existing cost recovery mechanisms would be sufficient to cover the cost of text-to-911 implementation. However, the FCC also asks for comment on this conclusion and other possible cost approaches.  

Comment Cycles

The FCC has bifurcated the comment cycles for the Further Notice in order to consider certain issues more promptly. Comments on the bounce-back and consumer education proposals will be due 20 days from publication of the Further Notice in the Federal Register and reply comments due 10 days after that. Comments on the other issues contained within the Further Notice will be due 60 days after Federal Register publication, with reply comments due 30 days after that. As of the date of this Advisory, the Further Notice has not yet been published in the Federal Register.