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FCC votes to push text-to-911 support on carriers and app developers

FCC votes to push text-to-911 support on carriers and app developers

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The FCC today voted to adopt rules requiring US carriers and some app developers to implement support for text-to-911 services by the end of 2014. For companies like AT&T and Verizon, the vote doesn't mean much; all major carriers already allow Americans to text 911 — at least where it's available. It's the smaller ones that will be impacted by the deadline. Even so, the delay here rests mostly at the local level. So far, emergency response centers are moving at a snail's pace to deploy the infrastructure necessary to receive emergency texts.

Speaking before the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials on Wednesday, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel admitted her colleagues recognize it won't happen overnight. "I know firsthand the benefits of having texting to 911 in place, but I also know, from many of you in this room, it can bring new difficulties," she said. "It's important to me — and important to the FCC — that you are in control. This will be deployed only when you are ready.”

The problem rests at the local level

There are some signs of progress; the FCC says more than one hundred 911 call centers are already accepting emergency texts. Even so, that only covers portions of 16 states along with all of Vermont and Maine. Plenty of work (and funding) will be needed before the 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing can text 911 without getting a bounce-back message saying it's unavailable. Same goes for the 7 million Americans with speech disabilities, though the FCC is trying to remind everyone that a call to 911 is always the fastest route to help.

The requirements also apply to "interconnected" text messaging providers like Apple who allow users to exchanges messages using their phone number, though it sounds like other apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp may be excluded. Even if text message providers drag their feet, they won't exactly be facing any major punishment. After the deadline, they'll have six months to implement text-to-911 support when asked to do so by any 911 call center.