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Operators to get new SMS 999 obligation

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Operators will soon have to support emergency text messaging, as Ofcom updates the universal service obligations to include number-porting within a day and a 24-month cap on contracts too.

Ofcom has been testing 999 by text message for a while. The service was originally aimed at deaf people, and required handsets to be preregistered, but it has already saved lives and is receiving around one text a day. It now has 14,500 registered users – enough for Ofcom to decide network operators should be obliged to support it indefinitely.

Those who do phone up to summon an ambulance will also be able to do so in the confidence that the person to whom they are speaking knows where they are – the operator should be able to pinpoint the caller's address if they are using a fixed phone, and the nearest base station if mobile. Those using VoIP from a mobile, however, will have to hope they can still talk; Ofcom exempts mobile VoIP on the grounds that it is really hard to track.

The contract caps and number-porting issues have been much debated already. The latter was brought in to prevent the excessively long contracts that network operators are using to pay off the cost of new handsets, and other bribes they use to get new customers. Under the new rules, the maximum contract length will be two years, and operators have an obligation to offer 12-month contracts, but operators are free to use price to guide customers to the length of contract they'd prefer, so this won't have a big impact.

One-day number-porting is required by EU legislation, and was debated last year to create the current bodge job, which seems to have satisfied no one. The new changes apply the same rules to corporate accounts, with numbers having to arrive at the new operator within 24 hours of the old operator handing over the PAC code to the customer.

Operators are required to hand over the PAC code promptly, but it does give them an opportunity to stall, and chase exiting customers. Smaller operators (notably Three) have lobbied for the new operator to be able to handle the whole process, but the larger operators successfully lobbied against such a change, saying it would be impossible, impractical, insecure and too expensive – in roughly that order.

The proposed changes to the Universal Service Conditions (pdf) also include a load of definition updates, and a few corrections, and are up for discussion until 7 April. ®

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