On August 8, 2014, the FCC adopted new rules that require broader deployment of Text-to-911 capabilities. At the present time, only the four largest wireless carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint) are obligated (as of May 2014) to support the ability of their customers to send a text message to a 911 emergency call center. The new rules extend this requirement to support emergency text messages to all other wireless carriers and to certain IP-based text application providers, by the end of 2014.
Covered text providers will then have six months from the date a 911 call center makes a request for Text-to-911 services to deploy the service within the emergency calling area. Existing rules mandate covered providers serving locations where the emergency call centers cannot process emergency text messages to send “bounce-back” messages to consumers who attempt to text to 911.
As mentioned above, in addition to wireless carriers, the new rules will apply to “interconnected text message providers.” These are entities that “enable consumers to send text messages to and from U.S. phone numbers,” and include providers of “over the top” applications that support text to phones. But the rules do not apply to providers of applications that permit texting only to a select group of users, such as online game players or social media users.
While Text-to-911 use is not intended to replace voice calls to emergency centers, emergency text messages are already aiding many disabled people, other consumers in situations where voice calling is not available (network congestion, for example), or individuals where placing a voice 911 call might endanger the caller.
In addition to adopting the new rules, the FCC also released a Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on delivery of location information and appropriate level of support for emergency texting while the consumer is roaming.
The FCC regularly takes an aggressive enforcement stand against carriers and service providers that fail to comply with any applicable 911 rules. Such enforcement carries with it the risk of civil forfeitures. In addition, common carriers can be sued for damages and attorney fees by persons injured by the carrier’s failure to comply with FCC rules. Similarly, any party injured by any other person’s failure to comply with FCC rules can sue to enforce such rules. The latter statute can reach non-common carriers and expose them to a lawsuit in federal court. Entities that might be affected by the new (or existing rules) should strongly consider a review of their ability to comply without delay.