Mixed Messages on Mobile

Plus, wireless carriers face end-of-year FCC deadline, Los Angeles launches a $1 million innovation fund and a revamped app in Fairfax County, Va., gives citizens access to crime data.

Society’s passion for mobile devices drove progress on two key technology policy issues — the ability to send text messages to 911 emergency operators and the implementation of “kill switch” software that remotely disables stolen smartphones. Neither were fully resolved, however, by year’s end.

As 2014 drew to a close, wireless carriers faced an end-of-year FCC deadline requiring them to support text-to-911 service. But lack of industry support isn’t what’s stopping most Americans from sending text messages to 911 during emergencies. The four major wireless providers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — voluntarily turned on texting services in May. Unfortunately most county 911 call centers aren’t equipped to receive the messages.

As of mid-year, just three states — Vermont, Iowa and Maine — supported the service in all of their counties. Text-to-911 was available in a few other counties across the nation, but in states like California it wasn’t offered at all. So even though texting rapidly is replacing voice calls for many citizens, implementing text-to-911 service throughout the nation’s 6,000 emergency call centers will take time. Besides requiring new technology and staff training, public safety officials point out that texting will tie up 911 operators longer than a voice call, perhaps driving the need for more call-center personnel.

Wireless carriers were quick to support text-to-911, but they were less enthused with state efforts to mandate kill switches for mobile devices. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in August requiring that the technology be built into all phones sold in the state. Minnesota enacted a similar law in May.

Proponents say the measures will curb epidemic theft of expensive mobile gadgets, but industry representatives complain that the state-by-state approach creates a patchwork of different requirements that boost consumer prices and hamstring innovation.

Despite their reservations, major manufacturers and carriers agreed to include a user-activated kill switch option on phones sold in the U.S. starting in July 2015. That didn’t quite settle the issue, however, as some kill-switch advocates argued the feature must be mandatory.

Back to the Year in Review: Making Sense of 2014

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.