FCC commissioners yesterday approved a notice of proposed rulemaking that is expected to establish timelines for wireless carriers to enable emergency texting to 911 and lay a foundation for the migration to next-generation 911 (NG-911).

"Today, we are taking an unprecedented step to make text-to-911 available in all parts of the country," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "For the first time, we are proposing specific requirements and timeframes that will add text capability to the 911 system; expand the accessibility of 911 for all Americans, including millions of people with disabilities; and mark the first major milestone in the nation's migration to next-generation 911."

Yesterday's vote followed last week's agreement between the four nationwide wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA — and two key public-safety organizations, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). In that agreement, the four carriers committed to supporting text to 911 in their networks by May 15, 2014, with "major deployments" expected in 2013.

NENA CEO Brian Fontes expressed support for the FCC's action, noting that the industry agreement likely will accelerate the deployment of text-to-911 capability.

"I think the four that signed on to the agreement recognize that, at some point, they may face regulation, but the regulation would be highly consistent with what they have agreed to do," Fontes said during an interview with Urgent Communications.

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"This is just one additional item in the number of items that the commission has put out to look at next-generation 911. I am grateful for that — it keeps it in the public debate. I think it raises questions that I certainly look forward to, in terms of reading the responses. We're going to get there as a nation, and I think this puts us a little closer to it."

As part of yesterday's proposed rulemaking, the FCC would require all carriers and providers of Internet-based — or "over the top" — text-messaging applications to enable text to 911, although the FCC is seeking comments regarding whether the May 15, 2014, date is appropriate for all providers.

Historically, applications have been deemed to be "information services," which typically have been unregulated. However, given the importance of 911 access, Fontes said that it is important that consumers have some assurance that the text-to-911 functionality will work.

"It's going to be interesting how this shakes out — I predict there are going to be some questions on jurisdiction," Fontes said. "I think there are some precedents for dealing with some of the jurisdictional issues, but we'll just have to see what's submitted to the docket."