According to a statement from the FCC, the body hopes to add messaging services like Apple's Messages app to an existing voluntary commitment from the four largest U.S. cellular carriers, all of which promised to activate text-to-911 capabilities by 2014.
"Implementing text-to-911 will keep pace with how consumers communicate today and can provide a lifesaving alternative in situations where a person with a hearing or speech disability is unable to make a voice call, where voice networks are congested, or where a 911 voice call could endanger the caller," the FCC said.
In the proposal, the Commission calls for "over the top" text messaging apps, or those that support sending texts to phone numbers, to allow for the transmission of emergency messages to 911 call centers. Apple's Messages, formerly called iMessage, is a prime example of a so-called "over the top" app as the service is data-based and doesn't rely on a cellular network's SMS assets.
The FCC is looking to smoothly transition into what it calls "Next-generation 911," or the move to cutting-edge communications that will reportedly enhance how first responders react to emergency situations. Messaging apps are seen as a natural evolution to texts as an increasing number of mobile users are choosing data-based alternatives to SMS and MMS.
"By proposing to extend text-to-911 requirements to certain ?over the top? applications [...] the FCC?s proposal would ensure that as text messaging evolves, consumers will
be able to reach 911 by the same texting methods they use every day," it said.
A report in November saw apps like Messages cause a decline in U.S. texts for the first time in years, suggesting the proliferation of smartphones and tablets is taking its toll on the longstanding SMS protocol.
Apple most recently expanded the cross-platform capabilities of Messages with an updated OS X version in Mountain Lion 10.8.2, which allows the Mac client to receive messages sent to a user's phone number.