Tier 1 carriers to launch nationwide text-to-911 service by mid-2014

The nation's Tier 1 wireless carriers agreed to offer nationwide text-to-911 services by May 15, 2014, with "major deployments" starting next year.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA agreed to the deployment of text-to-911 services, which various carriers have been testing in specific markets during the past several years.

The FCC has been holding discussions on a text-to-911 service for some time. Further, demand for the service is unclear: For example, in July the city of Durham, N.C., told the FCC that the SMS-capable 911 service it launched in August 2011 with Verizon and Intrado had received only one SMS to its 911 call center.

Nevertheless, the FCC argues that the service will allow people to get in touch with emergency responders in situations where a voice call could endanger the caller, or when a person with disabilities is unable to make a voice call. The FCC has stressed that text-to-911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, voice calls to 911 services.

The FCC said carriers have committed to provide an automatic "bounce back" text message to notify consumers if their attempt to reach 911 via text message was unsuccessful. The message  would instruct the recipient to make a voice call to a 911 center. The four carriers promised to implement this "bounce back" capability across their networks by June 30, 2013.  

Next week, the FCC said it will consider steps to ensure that text-to-911 is made available as soon as possible by all carriers as well as over-the-top messaging providers like Facebook Messenger. The inclusions of OTT messaging providers is notable since a growing number of U.S. wireless users are using services like Facebook Messenger instead of traditional, operator-provided SMS services.

Trials of text-to-911 service have been ongoing for the past few months. Earlier this week Sprint said customers in Vermont could send a text message to 911 as part of an initial four-month trial to test the technology. In September AT&T started testing the service in Tennessee. Verizon has been testing such services for years.

"Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century--and today, we are one step closer towards that vital goal," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.  "Last year I announced a comprehensive plan to accelerate the transition to Next Generation 911, including text-to-911, and the FCC has acted to advance this effort."

The FCC's Next Generation 911 is aimed at incorporating a wide range of services, including pictures and video, into the nation's 911 service. That effort is still in the early stages and likely won't be implemented for years.

Beginning no later than July 1, 2013, the four Tier 1 carriers said will voluntarily provide quarterly progress reports to the FCC, the National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials summarizing the status of the deployment of a national text-to-911 service capability.

For more:
- see this FCC release
- see this FCC filing
- see this Bloomberg article

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