SMS to 911? Wireless industry split over future of emergency texting

Mike Dano
There's a battle brewing at the FCC over whether to require 911 dispatchers to accept and respond to emergency text messages alongside voice calls. The conflict serves to highlight the truly backwards nature of emergency communications in the United States--a situation made all the more shameful when contrasted against the dramatic advances the wireless industry has made in flashy new devices and applications.

On one side of the SMS-to-911 debate are Motorola (NYSE:MMI), TeleCommunications Systems and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which argue that it is both feasible and technically possible to deliver text messages to 911 call centers.

TCS summed up the position in a recent FCC filing: "SMS to 911 is falsely labeled as ‘unreliable.' SMS is extremely reliable, so much so that an SMS system will attempt to deliver a message for days after it is sent. Text-based messaging is so reliable that our future national alert system, CMAS, is based on it. Likewise, the claim that SMS cannot provide the sender's location for 911 call routing is also false. The record is clear that location information adequate for call routing is available today, and that precise location can be provided without network upgrades."

Indeed, Verizon Wireless recently announced a teaming with Intrado to test a new 911 system in Texas that can handle IP communications including text and video. The effort will cost $9 million over six years. (Not surprisingly, Intrado is pushing the solution at the FCC.)

On the other side of the debate sit the likes of CTIA, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). In a particularly detailed FCC dissertation on why SMS to 911 can't work, AT&T argued that "ultimately, SMS is not a real-time communications service, but a best-effort, store-and forward service. The store-and-forward system design makes SMS unreliable and prone to unacceptable delays for purposes of emergency communications. ... It is virtually impossible to guarantee a real-time two-way text communications exchange using SMS technology. SMS was never designed nor deployed to provide any time-sensitive, mission critical service."

To be clear, AT&T, Qualcomm and others argue that SMS-to-911 functionality is important, but shouldn't be implemented in a one-off scenario. Instead, they contend, the ability to text 911 in emergencies should be incorporated into a larger overhaul of the aging 911 system that would support two-way, IP-based voice, video and data communications between 911 callers and dispatchers. Proponents of this view argue the overhaul should be coordinated by the FCC and standards groups including ATIS, 3GPP, and other groups.

It's certainly a difficult situation. On one hand, a growing number of wireless users just assume that 911 dispatchers can receive text messages. "The younger generation is not always fully aware of the lack of SMS support," noted the Washington, D.C., 911 center in an FCC filing. (Already, 70 percent of 911 voice calls come from wireless phones, according to Intrado.) On the other hand, though, is the danger of a half-baked approach to SMS to 911: According to AT&T, the 911 PSAP (public safety answering point) in Waterloo, Iowa, attempted to offer SMS-to-911 functions, but the service wasn't available across all wireless carriers and therefore caused confusion among users.

Also, let's also put this issue into context: It's been more than 10 years since the FCC first began its quest to require wireless carriers to be able to locate wireless 911 callers and deliver that information to dispatchers. While most carriers have managed to meet the FCC's Phase 1 (the caller's cell site information) and Phase 2 (the caller's location within several hundred meters) requirements, the so-called E911 mandate remains a goal instead of a given. According to Bhavin Shah, VP of marketing and development at location services firm Polaris, there are still small, rural wireless carriers that are only supplying 911 callers' cell site information--an area that could span miles.

And to broaden the discussion, there's the push to fund a nationwide, interoperable broadband wireless network for public safety. President Obama has pledged $10.7 billion toward the creation of that network--the goal being to prevent the communications difficulties experienced by emergency workers transmitting on non-interoperable networks in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

So the landscape for emergency communications is fractured, to say the least. And the situation is exacerbated by the foot-dragging of the government and the wireless industry.

But what's even more troubling are the amazing advances in wireless technology that make sending a text message to 911 seem quaint. After all, Verizon Wireless currently offers a smartphone from HTC that can access the Internet at speeds of around 12 Mbps. AT&T offers a smartphone from Motorola that can read users' fingerprints. And Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) is poised to sell a smartphone from HTC that displays three-dimensional images. In a world of Star Trek technology, is SMS-to-911 functionality too much to ask for? --Mike