FCC Considers Investigation of 911 Mobile Device Apps

On December 19, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission’s (Commission) Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (Bureau) issued a Public Notice (Notice) seeking comment on a letter from the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA) that asks the Commission to initiate a proceeding to examine issues related to how mobile device 911 applications interface with 911 systems. Comments on the Notice are due by February 2, 2017 and reply comments by March 6, 2017.

Many smartphone apps purport to offer additional functionality to emergency calling, including convenience buttons, silent communications and simultaneous text messaging to pre-specified contacts. Wireless carriers, including MVNOs, may make such apps available on smartphones, or may even consider pre-loading apps for customer convenience.

In its letter, NASNA raises concerns with the proliferation of smartphone 911 applications that purport to improve users’ access to emergency services, but may be misleading or in some cases irresponsible. According to NASNA, these apps often make misleading marketing claims about public safety endorsement and false statements about the reliability of cellular technology while also posing operability and interoperability issues that could be a risk to users. Examples cited include an app that allows the end-user to override location information generated by the device; an app vendor that published Commission and Department of Homeland Security logos on its promotional material after a briefing; and apps that may deliver 911 communications using non-standard means like VoIP.

In the Notice, the Bureau identifies the following policy matters that NASNA asks the Commission to address:

  • ensure 911 apps do not harm or slow down the way consumers currently access 911;
  • prohibit 911 apps from overriding location information generated by the device or spoofing location information to mislead public safety officers;
  • ensure 911 apps are tested to specific standards including for interoperability and downstream dispatching considerations;
  • guarantee accurate marketing materials;
  • prevent 911 apps from generating repeat accidental dial 911 calls;
  • develop specific standards for communicating supplemental consumer or incident information; and
  • require 911 apps to adhere to industry standards for NG911 systems and use public safety grade delivery networks and message routing methods.
The Bureau seeks comment on the specific matters raised in NASNA’s request as well as the appropriate role for the Commission, which may include questions about the Commission’s authority to address this matter.

For additional information regarding this Notice, please contact a member of Kelley Drye’s Communications Practice.