Sure, text-to-911 capabilities by December 31, 2014 is now the law, with mandated implementation by June 30, 2015 at the earliest. But your best bet, in an emergency, is still to make a voice call to 911, if possible.

R U rdy 4 txt 2 911? For the texting illiterate, that’s text-speak (somewhat similar to Newspeak from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) for “Are you ready for text to 911?” If you’re a commercial mobile radio services (CMRS) provider or “interconnected text provider”, you’ve got fewer than three months: the FCC’s rules now require all CMRS (CMRS) providers and “interconnected text providers” to support text-to-911 by the end of 2014.

What do you think, will this be doubleplusgood or doubleplusungood?

Followers of our blog will recall that last year the major CMRS carriers voluntarily agreed to make text-to-911 services available by May 2014. As we reported earlier this year, in January the FCC proposed rules mandating that all texting providers support text-to-911. And now those rules have been finalized, adopted and published in the Federal Register. Most took effect earlier this month (although some, involving new information collections, are still subject to Office of Management and Budget approval).

While the rules may technically be effective now, don’t expect text-to-911 to be working everywhere for a while yet.

That’s because, among other things, not all Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs – the folks who field the 911 requests) are set up to receive text messages. Moreover, PSAPs are not required to accept text messages – although the FCC believes all will choose to eventually – and your cell carrier doesn’t have to deliver your text-to-911 if your cell phone plan doesn’t include texting capabilities (yes, you’re expected to pay for sending texts, even to 911).

However, once a PSAP chooses to accept text messages and is ready to do so, it will have to notify the covered texting providers (more below on who’s covered). The texting providers then have six months to work with the PSAPs to make sure that the texts get routed to the right place. For those PSAPs that are ready before the end of 2014, covered texting providers will have until June 30, 2015 to get everything set up.

To make sure covered texting providers know when a PSAP is ready, the FCC plans to establish a centralized registration database with this information. Nobody knows when that database will be available (a Public Notice will be released when it is). But PSAPs can advise that they are ready by directly contacting texting providers or filing notifications with the FCC in PS Docket Nos. 10-255 and 11-153. If a covered texting provider runs into problems setting up the service for a particular PSAP, it can agree with the PSAP on an implementation timeframe beyond the required six-month period. In such situations, the covered provider must file a notification in PS Docket Nos. 10-255 and 11-153.

[Consumer tip: For the time being, in any emergency your best bet is still to make a voice call to 911, if possible.]

There are a lot of ways to send text messages, so who exactly are these covered texting providers?

As we reported previously, the text-to-911 requirements cover all CMRS providers (i.e., your cell phone carriers) as well as all providers of “interconnected text messaging services.” The latter includes anyone that enables text messaging service, even via “over the top” (OTT) applications, that can send texts to and receive texts from all or substantially all text-capable U.S. telephone numbers. The new rules do not apply to in-flight text messaging providers, mobile satellite service providers, Internet Protocol Relay service providers, 911 text messages that originate from Wi-Fi only locations or that are transmitted from devices that cannot access the cell phone network. (Companies unsure of whether they’re providing a covered text messaging service should consult with their regulatory attorneys.) 

For OTT providers of interconnected text messaging services, there are some other noteworthy peculiarities in the new rules. In order to route texts to the right PSAP, some location information must be gleaned from your mobile device. Thus, OTT providers (and all covered texting providers) must clearly inform consumers that the right permissions must be granted to the texting application in order for this location information to be accessed. If a consumer does not permit this access, a bounce-back message must be provided when the consumer tries to text 911. (And let’s not forget that, as we’ve also reported previously, the rules already adopted by the FCC require that a bounce-back message be provided anytime text-to-911 isn’t available.)

OTT providers that typically deliver texts via data connections (rather than through the more traditional Short Message Service, or SMS) also have to contend with how to get text messages to the PSAPs. While there are other methods, the FCC envisions that most of these providers will initially transmit text-to-911 by tapping into the SMS capabilities of the cell phone provider. The new rules require cell phone carriers to permit access to SMS for 911 texts originated from OTT applications. But OTT providers availing themselves of this method must clearly inform consumers that text-to-911 may not work in this situation if the consumer does not have an SMS plan with their phone carrier (and again, yes, you still have to pay for sending texts to 911).

Even before these basic capabilities are fully available to the public, the FCC is already exploring new requirements for text-to-911 in a Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Third FNPRM). Among other things, the Third FNPRM seeks comment on issues related to adding enhanced location data and roaming capabilities to the text-to-911 playbook.

Parties interested in commenting on the Third FNPRM have until October 16, 2014; reply comments are due by November 17, 2014. In the meantime, check back here for updates, and remember, Big Brother is watching.