FCC looks to eliminate possibly dangerous confusion over spotty availability of text-to-911 service.

Text messaging is rapidly becoming the preferred method of communication by smartphone and tablet users. Trillions of texts are sent each year. But many emergency assistance providers – the folks on the receiving end of 911 calls – aren’t yet ready to adapt to the trend. Although texting to 911 will be part of the next generation 911 technical standard, emergency dispatch centers are currently able to receive text messages in only a few select areas.

So if you’re in an emergency, and you text 911 about your dilemma, how do you know whether the message was received and help is on the way? The bad news: you don’t. The good news: by September 30, 2013, you will, thanks to new “bounce-back” requirements adopted by the FCC.

The move is part of the on-going effort, by the Commission and the wireless industry, to provide more effective emergency communications services. Last year, in an agreement with the National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the largest nationwide cell phone carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — voluntarily committed to make text-to-911 services available by May 2014.

But just because the Big Four can do it doesn’t mean that the smaller carriers will follow suit. Since 911 is a universal number which consumers expect to work everywhere, the FCC has issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) looking to develop guidelines for text-to-911 deployment by all carriers. Text-to-911 will significantly improve access to emergency 911 services in a wide range of circumstances. It will be a boon to individuals with hearing or speech disabilities who cannot make voice calls, for instance. It will help in those (ideally) rare situations where a voice call might be dangerous (the burglar is in the house, and you’re hiding). Since text messaging uses the spectrum more efficiently than voice, text-to-911 will also help ease the load on networks otherwise blocked by congestion or outages (earthquakes and tornadoes, for example).

But universal text-to-911 capability won’t happen overnight.

It takes time and money to equip public safety answering points (PSAPs), where 911 calls are received and help is dispatched. In the meantime, confusion over whether text-to-911 is available at a particular time and place could be dangerous to people in distress who wrongly assume that they have successfully summoned help.

To help prevent such confusion, the FCC has decided to require that “bounce-back” messages be sent to callers where text-to-911 is not available. In other words, if your message can’t be delivered to or read by the PSAP, you’ll at least be notified that your text message didn’t make it, and you need to try to place a voice call if you can. (Note that the FCC advises that calling 911 for emergency assistance is still preferable to texting in most circumstances.)

The new requirement, scheduled to kick in by the end of September, includes a number of regulatory parameters:

Message ContentThe R&O does not mandate specific wording for bounce-back messages, but they must convey at least two critical pieces of information: (1) text-to-911 is not available; and (2) the consumer should try to contact 911 using another means. The FCC provides the following example: “There is no text-to-911 service available. Make a voice call to 911 or use another means to contact emergency services.”

Interconnected Text Messaging Services:  The bounce-back requirement applies to all “interconnected text messaging services”, not just wireless cell phone carriers. The universe of “interconnected text messaging services” includes all services that “enable consumers to send text messages to and receive text messages from all or substantially all text-capable U.S. telephone numbers, including through the use of applications downloaded or otherwise installed on mobile phones.” In another words, if a service allows texting to any phone number, it must provide bounce-back. (On the other hand, applications which support only limited communication with a defined set of users of compatible applications, and not with substantially all text-capable telephone numbers, are excluded from the requirement.) Interconnected text applications which simply transmit and receive text messages over a wireless carrier’s SMS network (as opposed to routing texts through servers using internet-protocol transmission) can comply with the requirement by repeating the bounce-back messages sent by the wireless carriers they use.

NOTE: While all interconnected text providers are required to implement bounce-back, the FCC has not yet decided whether non-carrier text messaging providers (particularly those not capable of handling “short codes” like the three-digit “911”) will eventually be required to deliver text messages sent to “911”. (This question is out for comment in the FNPRM). Such providers may end up subject to a permanent bounce-back requirement. The R&O also provides an exception to the bounce-back requirement for legacy devices which are incapable of both sending text messages to three-digit short codes and being upgraded to do so. (Luddites who still think that phones are only for talking beware)

Roaming and Non-Initialized Handsets: Bounce-back messages will be required when a subscriber is roaming, but the message will be provided by the carrier picking up the cellphone signal, not the subscriber’s home carrier. In contrast, even though non-service-initialized handsets (those not subscribed to any service) are sometimes distributed for emergency calling – since carriers must accept 911 voice calls from any handset – wireless carriers will not be expected to provide bounce-back messages to non-service initialized handsets, because sending or receiving texts normally requires that a service plan be in effect.

Temporary Suspension Mechanism: What happens if a carrier and PSAP both support text-to-911, but the PSAP is temporarily unable to receive texts? For example, a PSAP could be overloaded and unable to respond to 911 texts promptly. The R&O requires covered entities to provide a mechanism for PSAPs to request temporary suspension of text-to-911 capability for any reason. As long as a PSAP avails itself of a temporary suspension mechanism, text providers must provide bounce-back messages for 911 texts in the affected area. The obvious questions: what mechanism will be mandated for PSAPs to notify carriers and how quickly will carriers be able to implement bounce-back? Some kind of automated system will be needed to avoid a time gap when callers won’t know that their text won’t go through.

Finally, the FCC declined to offer consumers an opportunity to test the bounce-back system by sending test text-to-911 messages. The chances are too great that some test messages would get through to PSAPs and flood their systems. The R&O specifically encourages consumer education efforts to discourage consumers from sending text messages to 911 in non-emergency situations.

Since we at CommLawBlog take our public education efforts seriously, we urge everyone to refrain from sending text messages to 911 just to check whether a bounce-back message will be provided (or for any other non-emergency purpose).

The requirements adopted in the R&O will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. (Check back here for updates on that front.)

Interestingly, more than one-third of the substantive portion of the R&O is devoted to a deep-in-the-legislative-weeds explanation of why the FCC has the authority to impose the bounce-back requirement. This seemingly defensive posture is presumably a response to claims by CTIA-The Wireless Association® that the FCC lacks the necessary authority. Whether that issue will eventually be put to the courts for resolution remains to be seen.