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FCC fast tracks text-to-911 service

The country's four largest mobile carriers get on board to help roll out a nationwide service that will let people text 911 during an emergency.

Josh Miller/CNET

Soon there will be more than just one way to contact 911.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced today that the four largest wireless carriers in the U.S. have agreed to fast track a service that will let people text the emergency 911 line.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all signed on and major deployments are planned to roll out in 2013 and the service should be fully available nationwide by May 15, 2014.

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

Dubbed "Next Generation 9-1-1," the FCC has been working on this project for the last two years. When Genachowski first announced the plan to "bring 911 into the Digital Age" in November 2010, he referenced the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting when students tried to text police for help, but were unsuccessful.

The goal of the service is to offer people more ways to contact emergency officials, as well as improve the network to ensure it holds up for new communication technologies. According to Genachowski, a key component in Next Generation 9-1-1 is the rapid deployment of text messaging, photo, and video support.

A text-to-911 service could markedly help the millions of U.S. residents that have hearing or speech disabilities and are unable to make voice calls. According to the FCC, once the project is complete more than 90 percent of the country's wireless consumers will have the service.

While the service is getting phased-in, the mobile carries will send an automatic "bounce back" text message when any attempts to reach 911 via text message fail. This bounce back message would come before the text-to-911 service is available in a certain area.

Both AT&T and Verizon have been testing text-to-911 services over the past few months. In September, AT&T was given the go-ahead by the state of Tennessee to kick off a statewide trial service. Using a new Emergency Service IP Network, the test lets the carrier's subscribers send text messages to Tennessee 911 call centers.

For the FCC, however, getting Next Generation 9-1-1 implemented hasn't come easy. Several obstacles have stood in the way over the years, such as receiving approval for funding from Congress and getting all the major mobile carriers on board.

"This is good progress, but our work is not done," Genachowski said today. "Next week the FCC will consider further actions to advance text-to-911 for all consumers. We will also take additional steps in this area next year, including closely monitoring carriers' compliance with the commitments they have made today and addressing other aspects of Next Generation 9-1-1 such as enabling transmission of photos and videos to 911 centers."