FCC commissioners today approved an order requiring all wireless carriers and providers of interconnected over-the-top text messaging services—those using phone numbers to let users send and receive messages—support text-to-911 functionality by the end of the year, if requested by a public-safety answering point (PSAP).

Commissioners reiterated the fact that voice calls to 911 are more efficient, more reliable and provide better information to first responders—and, therefore, should be the first option when seeking emergency help—but the value of text-to-911 capability is clear, especially to those who are hearing- or speech-impaired or are in a situation in which speaking could endanger their lives.

“Texting is now as important a function on a mobile device as talking, and some of those text messages are cries for help,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during the meeting, which was webcast. “Some of those cries for help are from individuals who can’t hear or speak.

“Yes, call 911, if you can. But, if you can’t, what are you going to do?”

Four nationwide carriers—Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile—have been enabling text-to-911 service since May 15 as part of a voluntary agreement reached in December 2012 with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). However, other wireless carriers and interconnected text providers “ignored” the example and did not follow suit, so the FCC passed an order requiring them to support text-to-911 service, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“I agree with my colleagues here in saluting those four national carriers who stepped up and said, ‘We’re going to do the right thing,’ Wheeler said during the meeting. “Unfortunately, a lot of time has passed since those carriers stepped up and did something voluntarily, and the other carriers serving the consumers of America did not.

“The regulatory seesaw says, ‘Step up. If you can do it, that’s terrific.’ But, if you don’t step up to your responsibility, we will [establish regulations].”

Under the FCC order, all wireless carriers and interconnected text-application providers must support text-to-911 functionality by the end of the year, but that does not mean text-to-911 service will be nationwide by 2015. That’s because the availability of text-to-911 service will be driven by the ability for PSAPs to accept emergency text messages through their 911 systems. Currently, about 120 of the nation’s 6,800 PSAPs—less than 2% nationwide—can accept 911 texts, according to FCC officials.

Given the limited ability of PSAPs to accept 911 texts, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said he opposed the order, noting that it was “misleading, at best,” because consumers learning about the order will believe that they will receive emergency help by sending texts to 911, when that is not the case in the vast majority of locations in the country.

Pai also noted that the order does not address users roaming on other networks, users texting while using Wi-Fi-only devices and users that text from applications that do not interface with carrier SMS systems. In addition, Pai said that it would be better for the FCC to adopt text-to-911 rules that better interface with the all-IP platform in next-generation 911.

“Put simply, we’re adopting today a patchwork approach that exposes consumers to numerous pitfalls,” Pai said during the meeting. “When a domestic-violence victim is desperate, when someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing is in need, we can’t expect them to navigate the intricacies of these rules, to somehow intuit the precise operating mode of their phone or to know whether their app is interconnected, as defined in the FCC’s rules.

“How many Americans will waste precious seconds during an emergency attempting in vain to text 911 because of [the passage of the FCC order]—seconds that could make all of the difference? I fear that the answer is ‘Too many,’ although just one is too many.”