FCC orders support for text-to-911

WASHINGTON — All Americans may soon be able to get help from 911 just by sending a text message.

The service is available in only certain areas and on major national wireless carriers. But under new rules approved 3 to 2 Friday by the Federal Communications Commission, all cellular service providers will be required to support text-to-911 universally by year’s end.

“Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of Americans,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, “and this is a step to continue to fulfill that responsibility. And it is not a final step.”

About 400,000 Americans contact 911 daily, according to the FCC — and about 70 percent of them do so with cellphones. In places where it’s too dangerous for a caller to speak, or when the caller simply can’t talk, text messaging could be a lifesaver.

Text-to-911 comes with unique challenges, though. Unlike calls from a cellphone, where getting accurate location data is a difficult but surmountable problem, it’s unclear how text messages will convey location information without the user disclosing it by hand. Dispatchers may not know where to send help in response to a texted plea to 911 — at least, not to the same level of specificity that a call from a landline can provide.

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said the FCC’s vote encourages people to “dive in … when in fact there’s hardly any water in the pool,” saying that even if wireless carriers complied with all the regulations on time, only a tiny share of 911 dispatchers — about 2 percent — currently accept text messages.

The FCC’s regulations will also apply to third-party messaging apps, such as Google Voice and Apple’s iMessage, which are increasingly popular among cellphone users. Requiring the apps to support the feature may be a complicated process.

One question is how the FCC will determine which third-party messaging apps will be covered by the rules. Only apps that “interconnect” with text-messaging systems — meaning that they’re set up to send messages to phone numbers as opposed to simply routing messages across the app’s own systems — will be subject to the rules. Some officials, such as Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, say that putting 911 location requirements on software developers would lead to consumers’ privacy settings being overridden.

Some worry that an eventual shift away from text-messaging technology altogether could undermine the regulation.

“Even the applications that have integrated with SMS, like iMessage, only fit the definition so long as the SMS technology remains in service,” AT&T wrote in a blog post Thursday. “Once that technology is retired, those apps no longer fit the definition.”

AT&T itself anticipates a shift away from traditional text messaging.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Eve Barrows (left) and the students duck and cover under desks during an Earthquake Drill at Port Susan Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Stanwood, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
‘Drop, cover, hold on!’ Stanwood kids hear new alarms in quake drill

The Great ShakeOut offered a dress rehearsal Thursday for a new system that aims to warn before the tremors start.

This crash in Monroe happened early Friday morning after police discontinued a high-speed chase. Both occupants were taken to a hospital. (Monroe Police Department) 20211022
2 seriously injured in Monroe crash; DUI suspected

The driver hit a center lane divider and rolled his car. Police are investigating him for vehicular assault.

Everett Farmer’s Market canceled Sunday due to weather

Organizers cited a high-wind advisory. It is to reopen Oct. 31 for the final market of the season.

Police: ‘Prolific’ Marysville thief stole from dozens of gym lockers

The suspect, 23, was arrested this week for investigation of more than 55 felonies.

Alejandro Meza watches a video of the altercation he had with Gene Peterson on Community Transit bus during opening statements of his trial on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Murder trial opens for man who shot stranger on Everett bus

Alejandro Meza got into a fight with a passenger over drug use, he claimed. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense.

Police are searching for a female suspect following a burglary at the Masjid Umar Al-Farooq Mosque in Mountlake Terrace. (City of Mountlake Terrace)
Police arrest suspect in Mountlake Terrace mosque burglary

Another person remained at large, after burglars took prayer rugs and Qurans then threw them in a dumpster.

Arlington schools briefly on lockout; students, staff safe

A Mukilteo resident reportedly intended to die by suicide in a school parking lot. They were found and referred to care.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, center, greets a new trooper during a graduation ceremony, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on in the Rotunda at the Capitol Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. The class of 31 troopers completed more than 1,000 hours of training and will now work for the WSP across the state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Rather than get vaccine, nearly 2,000 state workers lose jobs

Ten troopers north of Seattle, 54 Monroe prison workers and hundreds more across the state refused the governor’s mandate.

Most Read