Comments sought on how and when text-to-911 should be required across-the-board, including by interconnected “over the top” services

Pity the poor FCC. Saddled with an outdated governing statute and limited resources, it’s supposed to regulate newly-minted whiz bang technologies that get embraced by the public seemingly before the FCC even learns about them. And when it tries to get ahead of the curve, it occasionally gets too far ahead. Case in point: its text-to-911 bounce-back rule for roaming customers. A great idea on paper but, as the FCC learned, beyond the capabilities of existing technology, the result being a last-minute revision to the rule last September.

Bloodied but unbowed, the FCC is again revising its text-to-911 rules in an apparent attempt to catch up with that “app” thing that all the kids are using. In a Policy Statement and Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (PS/SFNPRM) the Commission is proposing to require all interconnected text messaging services to enable consumers to send text message to 911. This would include texting apps that ride “over the top” (OTT) of the data services of wireless service providers. 

But this time, even the FCC recognizes that its ambitions may exceed present-day technical capabilities.

More than a year ago the Big Four wireless carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) agreed that, by May 15, 2014, they would provide text-to-911 service to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) that are capable of, and that request to receive, such service. With text-to-911 capabilities for the Big Guys now just a few months away, the FCC has decided as a matter of policy that every CMRS carrier and every provider that enables interconnected texting should do this as well.

How and when that might happen is unclear.

In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking portion of the PS/SFNPRM, the FCC requests comments on a wide variety of questions that will have to be answered before its newly-announced policy can be implemented. While most of the technical issues appear easy to resolve – if they haven’t been resolved already – as far as non-Big Four CMRS operators are concerned, the same isn’t true of interconnected OTT services. Their technical ability to meet text-to-911 requirements is a Commission concern.  So too are problems involving: the capability of providing Phase II-comparable location information in conjunction with emergency texts; delivering text-to-911 over non-cellular data channels; and supporting text-to- 911 for consumers while roaming on CMRS networks. (The FNPRM is chock-full of diagrams showing various OTT delivery models, which may or may not be capable of sending the required information to the PSAPs so they in turn can send first responders to the right location.)

The FCC is also aware that many PSAPs are not currently capable of accepting and processing 911 text messages. But the Commission expects that, by prodding text message providers into action, it will also be helping PSAPs position themselves to handle the incoming 911 texts. (The theory there is that, if budgeting officials for states and localities responsible for PSAPs know that the public will be able to send text-to-911 messages, those officials may be more inclined to gear up to receive those messages.)

As far as implementation timeframes go, the FCC is proposing that text-to-911 capabilities should be implemented by all text providers by December 31, 2014. As of that date the text providers should be prepared to provide that service within a reasonable time (not to exceed six months) after a PSAP has requested it.

Recognizing that OTT texting app developers could well face serious challenges in getting their services to comply with the text-to-911 mandate, the FCC asks for comment on whether some alternative timeframe should apply to OTT text providers. If OTT-ers can’t meet the FCC’s implementation deadline, those services may have to sit on the sidelines until they can work out the bugs. That would mean that customers would have to go back to the Big Four to get their texting fix. While such an outcome would no doubt be a boon to the Big Four, bill shock could again come to the fore as teens blast through their texting bucket plans.

Comments and replies in response to the FCC’s PS/SFNPRM will be due 30 and 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, respectively. Check back here for updates.