FCC mandates "911-only phone" changes

Federal regulators have set down rules to solve a problem for 911 call centers and people who use special cell phones to call them.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
Federal regulators have set down rules to solve a problem for 911 call centers and people who use special cell phones to call them.

Phones that are programmed to do just one thing--call 9-1-1--don't have a telephone number, so they can't get a return call. That leaves police without the ability to call back if a panicked crime victim hangs up or the connection gets disrupted before the caller gives his or her location, for example.

So on Monday, the Federal Communications Commission put in place new regulations and made other decisions that ended nearly two years of work on the subject.

The commission will require manufacturers to create an alert for emergency call center operators that the caller is dialing from a 911-only phone. For instance, the FCC will ask manufacturers to program the 911 phones to send a specific code number, instead of a phone number, to dispatchers of emergency call centers. This way, when emergency operators see that code--which will be 123-456-7890--they will know to ask the caller for his or her location.

The FCC also wants manufacturers to make it very clear to customers that these cell phones cannot receive incoming calls. The manufacturers will have to affix labels on the phones telling users to "convey the exact location of the emergency as soon as possible," according to the FCC statement.

However, the FCC spared makers of these phones from creating a way to give police a callback number.

"It is still technically infeasible to require carriers and manufacturers of 911-only phones to...provide (call centers) with a callback number," the commission said in a statement about the new rules.

The special cell phones come from wireless carriers, which refurbish used, regular cell phones from their customers after a contract expires or when the customer moves to another plan. Some of the more damaged phones are cleaned up and stripped of their assigned telephone number.

Carriers like Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS and VoiceStream Wireless donate many of these phones to at-risk populations like battered women. Other refurbished phones are sold to security-minded companies like a Knoxville, Tenn.-based SecureAlert, which sells a variety of security products.

Some carriers have taken a different tack with their emergency phones. Before the FCC regulations were drafted, Verizon Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless, which will change its name to T-Mobile this summer, made adjustments to the phones they were giving out.

The two carriers assign telephone numbers to the cell phones they donate to women's shelters or other locations, making them able to get incoming calls, according to FCC records. But outgoing calls are restricted to one phone number and 9-1-1. Carriers Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless both told the FCC that they also donate phones that have phone numbers.