The four largest US carriers this week agreed to create a nationwide service that would allow users to contact 911 via text message. In a statement released Thursday, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all signed on to the "text-to-911" program, which will see "major deployments" in 2013 before launching nationwide by May 15th, 2014.
This week's announcement marks the latest development in the FCC's ongoing "Next Generation 9-1-1" initiative, launched in 2010. The Commission's overarching goal is to "bring 911 into the Digital Age" by expanding the service to more modern communication platforms. Today, 911 emergency services can only be contacted by phone, but under the FCC's plan, users would be able to send texts, video, and photos, as well. This service would be especially helpful to people with hearing or speech disabilities, who may not be able to communicate via voice call.
"Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century."
At launch, the nationwide service will be available to more than 90 percent of all wireless customers in the US. During the rollout phase, those attempting to text 911 will receive an automatic "bounce back" SMS if the service is not yet available in their area. Some carriers, meanwhile, have already begun developing their own infrastructure. In May, Verizon announced plans to launch a 911 texting service by next year, while AT&T launched a trial of a similar program in September.
But getting all four major carriers to sign on had proven difficult for Genachowski, who hailed today's announcement as a major step forward. "Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century," Genachowski said in a statement. "Today, we are one step closer towards that vital goal." He added, however, that the FCC must still work toward making the service available to all Americans, and that the Commission would need to closely monitor all carriers for compliance with the program. "This is good progress, but our work is not done," Genachowski said.