The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Friday to require all wireless carriers and some messaging services to allow people to text 911 in the event of an emergency.
The new rules called for all providers to allow texts to emergency services by Dec. 31, 2014 and all 911 call centers, known as public safety answering points (PSAPs), to implement the ability to receive messages by June 30, 2015.
"This is about people's lives," said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who voted in favor of the rules along with the other two Democrats. "This is about the expectations that we are to provide for the safety of Americans. This is a step to continue to fulfill that responsibility. And it is not the final step."
The big four wireless carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) had voluntarily committed to incorporating text-to-911 in their services in 2012, will full implementation finalized in May. However, implementation from local governments across the nation has been sparse, which is something both Republican commissioners, Michael O'Rielly and Ajit Pai drove home during their dissenting remarks.
"Only 121 of the 6800 PSAPs across the nation can accept text messages," said O'Rielly, who called the decision "hasty."
"We are adopting a patchwork approach that exposes consumers to numerous pitfalls," Pai said. "In your moment of need, if you try texting 911 in over 98 percent of the country you won't reach emergency personnel no matter what application you use," he said. "Nothing in this order will change that fact any time soon."
Pai also took issue with the order's focus on SMS messaging -- which wireless carriers are moving away from -- and how it could hinder innovation in 911 services.
"Diving down this rabbit hole would only impede the next generation-911 transition," Pai said. "This order will serve to frustrate, not further, the deployment of next-gen 911."
Bob Quinn, senior vice president at AT&T shared some of Pai's concerns in a Friday morning blog post:
"All evidence points to the fact that texting is migrating quickly away from SMS to IP. The Order assures SMS providers that as that migration evolves, SMS providers are permitted to retire that technology and migrate their services in a similar fashion to IP. Our fear though is that despite those assurances, the heavy reliance on SMS technology will ultimately hinder the ability of SMS providers to retire that technology. We fully support the Commission's goal of ensuring that public safety obligations -- including text-to-911 obligations -- are platform and technology neutral. But the FCC has much more work to do in the area of text-to-911 to actually accomplish that goal."
However, John Rennie, general manager of the public safety global business unit with NICE Systems -- a company that helps 911 call centers log communications -- doesn't think Friday's ruling will ultimately stand in the way of evolving 911 technology.
"I think the text-to-911 is the first step to a transition to a next-gen 911 environment," Rennie told FedScoop. "It's going to continue to evolve as new methods come in. I think this is more about ensuring consistency for the general public."
Rennie says the opposition to the rules are "valid and genuine concerns" but take on the same tenor to questions raised during previous stages of 911's evolution.
"All of those arguments were put forth for [911 on] mobile phones, all those arguments were put over VoIP as well," Rennie said. "There comes a point when as a member of the general public, you just expect these things to work and be able to get help. "
The Democrats on the panel that voted for the ruling championed the access this ruling gives to those with special needs.
"Text messaging plays a vital role in protecting life and property," said commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "This technology enables 40 million Americans with hearing and speech disabilities to use phones to access emergency services."
"Times change, technology marches on, and we find new ways to bring the ways we communicate into the 911 fold," said commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
The ruling will also allow a further notice of rulemaking that seeks comment on the continued evolution of text-to-911, including how to incorporate location information into over-the-top text services and support for roaming.