SOURCE: 4G Americas

4G Americas

October 12, 2010 13:09 ET

Text Messaging Not Reliable for Emergency Communications

4G Americas Report Examines Limitations for Critical Communication

BELLEVUE, WA--(Marketwire - October 12, 2010) -  4G Americas, a wireless industry trade association representing the 3GPP family of technologies, today reports that it has published a white paper that provides a technical and practical analysis of SMS as a means to contact 9-1-1 Emergency Services. The report titled, Texting to 9-1-1: Examining the Design and Limitations of SMS, presents a view of the capabilities, limitations, threats and vulnerabilities of this means of text communications for 9-1-1 notification.

A person's ability to send text messages to 9-1-1 emergency services is a topic of significant interest and ongoing discussion in a number of communities, including public safety, people with disabilities and in the wireless industry. The term "text" signifies everything from the Short Message Service (SMS), to Instant Messaging (IM), to social networks such as Twitter® and Facebook®. According to CTIA -The Wireless Association, in the U.S. in 2009, the number of annualized SMS messages was 1.56 trillion, or 152.7 billion monthly SMS messages. With millions of SMS messages sent each day, there is a perception that SMS is reliable; however, SMS was never designed as a reliable means for life-saving critical communications. SMS was designed to be secondary to voice calls and was never designed to provide the full and robust communications people have come to expect with voice calls. Further, the issues and limitations for Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) emergency communications, that typically include text, pictures and video clips, are similar to the issues and limitations for SMS-based emergency communications.

"While we understand the desire to use SMS to contact 9-1-1, SMS has significant limitations and shortcomings that do not make SMS suitable for emergency communications, especially under life-threatening conditions," stated Chris Pearson, President of 4G Americas. "Today, voice 9-1-1 communication is the best and most reliable method of reporting an emergency and summoning help quickly. The industry is working on developing a reliable, non-voice solution to contact emergency services that is not based on SMS."

The report notes that there are substantial limitations inherent in the design of the current Short Message Services which make it impractical to be used for emergency service.

Some key observations and conclusions of the white paper include the following:

  • No location information is available to the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) when a citizen initiates an SMS message and it traverses the network. Location is subject to whatever is put in the message by the originator, which may delay or misroute the message to the appropriate 9-1-1 answering point.
  • Because the SMS service was designed and deployed to use only temporarily-vacant capacity in the networks, wireless operators have always described service/reliability levels as "best efforts only" or equivalent.
  • No priority or special handling is given to SMS messages, so a potential emergency message would contend with the millions of other messages being processed at any given moment.
  • SMS is not a real-time communications service. SMS messages is "store and forward" and thus may have a delayed delivery, may be delivered in a different order than the sender intended, or may be lost or discarded.
  • SMS was not designed with security mechanisms.
  • Current voice emergency services support calls to 9-1-1 for mobile devices that do not have an installed smart card or may not be authorized for regular voice services in the serving network, however, they do not support SMS messages due to the fundamental design of the network protocols.

The wireless industry (e.g., ATIS, 3GPP, 4G Americas) is working with national public safety organizations (i.e., NENA) to define requirements and make recommendations for a non-SMS based non-voice emergency services (NOVES). Their first issue is improving connectivity to 9-1-1 for the hearing-impaired (e.g., TTY Emulation). The wireless industry continues to be committed to working constructively with public safety on all Next Generation 9-1-1 topics and will continue to investigate potential solutions as demonstrated by recently initiated 3GPP standards study activity.

The white paper, Texting to 9-1-1: Examining the Design and Limitations of SMS, was written collaboratively by members of 4G Americas and is available for free download on the 4G Americas website at

About 4G Americas: Unifying the Americas through Mobile Broadband Technology
4G Americas is an industry trade organization composed of leading telecommunications service providers and manufacturers. The organization's mission is to promote, facilitate and advocate for the deployment and adoption of the 3GPP family of technologies throughout the Americas. 4G Americas contributes to the successful commercial rollout of 3GPP mobile broadband technologies across the Americas and their place as the No. 1 technology family in the region. The organization aims to develop the expansive wireless ecosystem of networks, devices, and applications enabled by GSM and its evolution to LTE. 4G Americas is headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., with an office for Latin America and the Caribbean in Dallas. More information is available at

Contact Information

  • Contact:
    Vicki Livingston
    4G Americas
    +1 262 242 3458
    Email Contact