US mobile providers commit to emergency texting service

The four largest mobile carriers will offer text-to-911 nationwide by mid-2014 in an agreement with the FCC

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

The four largest mobile carriers in the U.S. -- AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile -- have agreed to accelerate the availability of emergency texting, or text-to-911.

The four carriers have committed to major deployments of text-to-911 in 2013, with nationwide availability by May 15, 2014, U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said late Thursday. The agreement between the agency and the four carriers means that more than 90 percent of the nation's mobile consumers, including those with hearing or speech disabilities, will be able to contact emergency services by sending text messages to 911.

Text-to-911 can also provide consumers access to emergency communications in situations where a voice call could endanger them, the FCC said in a press release. The agency sees text-to-911 has a complement to, not a substitute for, voice calls to 911 services, and recommends that people should make voice calls to 911 when possible.

"Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century -- and today, we are one step closer toward that vital goal," Genachowski said in a statement.

The carriers have also committed to providing automatic bounce-back text messages to notify consumers if their attempts to reach 911 by text message were unsuccessful because the service was not yet available. The messages, available by July 2013, will instruct those people to call 911, the FCC said.

The FCC said it plans additional action to move text-to-911 forward. Next week, it will consider steps to ensure that text-to-911 is made available as soon as possible by all carriers, and by over-the-top providers that offer Internet-based text services.

In addition to the four carriers, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) are on board with the text-to-911 agreement, those groups said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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