iMessage, other OTT messaging providers to fall under FCC's text-to-911 rules

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The FCC proposed yesterday that all wireless carriers and providers of over-the-top messaging applications like Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iMessage provide customers with tex-to-911 services. The proposed rule changes are part of an ongoing overhaul of the FCC's Next-Generation 911 rules.

The FCC's rules would require wireless carriers to deliver SMS messages to local 911 call centers (Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs) that can receive the texts. The rules would also cover OTT services like iMessage and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) Messenger.

"By proposing to extend text-to-911 requirements to certain 'over the top' applications--those that send text messages to phone numbers but not, for example, within games and social media--the FCC's proposal would ensure that as text messaging evolves, consumers will be able to reach 911 by the same texting methods they use every day," the FCC said in in a statement.

At this point it is unclear how many OTT apps will be required to meet the new standard.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA agreed last week to the deployment of text-to-911 services, which various carriers have been testing in specific markets during the past several years. The carriers agreed to offer nationwide text-to-911 services by May 15, 2014, with "major deployments" starting next year.

The FCC asked for public comment on whether the May 2014 timeframe is achievable for all carriers and the third-party messaging providers that fall under the rules. "Implementing text-to-911 will keep pace with how consumers communicate today and can provide a lifesaving alternative in situations where a person with a hearing or speech disability is unable to make a voice call, where voice networks are congested, or where a 911 voice call could endanger the caller," the FCC said in a statement. "At the same time, the commission emphasized that text-to-911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, existing voice-based 911 service, and that consumers should always make a voice call to 911 during an emergency if they can."

The new 911 texting rules will also require PSAPs to upgrade their equipment to receive texts. Indeed, just this week the Durham Emergency Communications Center, in North Carolina, inked a deal with Intrado for a next-generation 911 service that includes enhanced call routing and image and video delivery.

However, the FCC warned that the deployment of text-to-911 services will not be uniform. As such, the FCC wants to require that all wireless carriers and OTT messaging services covered by the rules send automated "bounce back" error messages to consumers attempting to text 911 in areas where the service is not yet available. The error message would let people know that the text did not reach 911 and that they should instead place a voice call to 911 if possible.

CTIA said voiced its support for the FCC's actions. "While significant limitations and challenges exist in the broader delivery of text-to-911 communications, CTIA welcomes today's Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that asks important technical and operational questions regarding the use of these services to reach public safety answering points," CTIA said in a statement. 

For more:
- see this FCC release (PDF)
- see this Intrado release
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this CNET article
- see this The Verge article

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