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FCC’s Next-Generation 911 Gears up for Next Step

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The Federal Communications Commission’s next-generation 911 initiative might not be as well-known as its more controversial net neutrality proposal, but changing the way people interact with emergency services could have as big an impact.

At the same meeting the commissioners voted to move forward on its controversial open Internet regulations last week, FCC also filed a public notice of inquiry seeking comment on its proposed reforms to 911.

The end result could be a 911 service that is able to accept texts, photos and streaming video.

“Today’s 911 system doesn’t support the communication tools of tomorrow,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a speech last month before the Arlington County Emergency Center in Arlington, Va.

There are 270 million cellular subscribers and 70 percent of 911 calls emanating from cellphones, according to FCC, however, cellphones are now used more for texting than for making calls.

The revitalization of the nation’s emergency networks appeared to create rare consensus from the icily divided commission that voted along party lines to approve net neutrality.

“While we may at times disagree on the way forward on some issues before the Commission, I think we can all agree that the safety of the American public must always be our top priority,” said FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps in a statement.

In public remarks about next-generation 911, Genachowski has used the Virginia Tech University shootings as a tragic example of the inadequate 911 system.A next-gen 911, able to receive texts and videos, would have provided first-responders with a clearer picture of events, he has said.

Text-friendly 911 also provides a practical solution for the hearing impaired, which is an obligation of FCC under the recently enacted Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.

The notice for public comment asks “important questions about how emergency communications can take into account the needs of individuals with hearing or speech disabilities,” Copps said.  “It is just one of many proceedings where I hope we will think creatively about how to ensure persons with disabilities can be full participants in our society and entitled to its full protections.”

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