Updating Telephone Technology for the Deaf Community

Font Size:

The FCC proposes updates to its requirement that companies support particular telephone technology for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Font Size:

For most Americans, making a phone call is an easy matter. But individuals who are athaf or severely hard of hearing are dependent on adaptive technologies to transmit or translate their text input and enable phone calls to friends, employers, and even emergency responders.

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking and issued a proposed rule that would require providers and manufacturers to replace the currently mandated but outdated “text telephone technology” with “real-time text” technology. Unlike text telephone technology, real-time text works over IP-based wireless services, provides instantaneous communication, and does not require additional hardware.

Text telephone technology was first developed in the 1970s. It was a remarkable breakthrough in communication for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. But it is now increasingly obsolete. The technology requires the use of a specialized device, a teletypewriter, in order to send messages. The teletypewriter can only send sixty words per minute and employs a limited set of characters, preventing the communication of anything employing special characters or non-English letters. In order to communicate with someone who doesn’t have a teletypewriter, a person needs to employ a third-party translation service.

Additionally text telephone technology requires that the user hit send at the completion of each message. Thus, the device provides for communication more akin to text messaging than an actual conversation. This is particularly problematic for 911 communications, as first responders may never receive even a portion of a call for help if the individual does not complete the message and hit send.

The current FCC rules require wireless service providers and phone manufactures to support text telephone technology. Carriers must support message transmission and provide translators and equipment manufacturers must ensure compatibility with the teletypewriters and other equipment.

Conventional communication technology has long since outpaced text telephone technology communication. Conventional text messaging is accessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, and it does not require any additional hardware or a translator. Similarly, individuals frequently use e-mail and social media applications instead.

The new FCC proposed rulemaking actually results from a petition by the wireless carrier AT&T to update the rules and allow the phase out of text telephone technology. AT&T argued that the “regulatory obligations to support the technology on next generation IP platforms are anachronistic,” and commentators agreed that IP-based communication networks will not be able to support the outdated text telephone technology effectively.

At the suggestion of AT&T and many commentators, the FCC proposes replacing the outdated system. Instead, it will phase in requirements for the adoption of “real-time text.” Unlike text telephone technology, real-time text is designed for IP networks. The FCC also “tentatively conclude[s]” that it presents practical advantages over the older technology.

Real-time text allows for instantaneous communication via text over a phone line. Unlike text messages or other mainstream text based communication, real-time text transmits individual characters and words as they are input without the use of a separate “send” button, providing a conversation rhythm. This feature is also key for communication with emergency responders who will receive transmissions as they are typed. This prevents misunderstandings and loss of time as messages get crossed and also transmits incomplete messages if an individual does not complete a message requesting help.

Real-time text also employs a much broader range of characters than the earlier text telephone technology, permitting communication of words requiring special characters, accents, or non-English letters.

Additionally, real-time text technology generally can function directly with common smartphones without requiring additional hardware. This is key for enabling individuals with disabilities to communicate with others without being concerned about the other individual’s access to specialized hardware or employing a translation service.

While there are various potential modern technologies, the notice of proposed rulemaking would adopt a single standard of real-time text, RFC 4013, as a safe harbor, in order to promote “interoperability and product portability, while at the same time provide sufficient flexibility.” It specifically seeks comments on the use of this standard.

The FCC would require backwards compatibility with text telephone technology. Though the usage has been in steady decline, some individuals still rely on it, particularly senior citizens and individuals who do not have access to the Internet. AT&T and Verizon both indicated in comments that they intend to ensure backwards compatibility as they transition to real-time text. The FCC seeks comments in particular on how to translate characters and words in real-time text to the much more limited number of characters provided in the outdated text telephone technology.

The rule would require that devices and networks permit RTT communications to be made or received with the same telephone number used for traditional voice calling. This would be important to ensure the ability of real-time text users to communicate easily with others. Similarly, it would require that the devices be capable of sending and receiving real-time text and voice simultaneously on a single device.

Finally, the proposed rule focuses on the ability of users to communicate with 911 services using real-time text. It would mandate that real-time text meet all applicable 911 requirements. It seeks comments on how to ensure that coverage is not disrupted during a power outage cutting of Wi-Fi service.

The FCC chairman Tom Wheeler praised the rule as finally allowing “the millions of Americans who have been in the [text telephone technology] ‘silo’ to communicate in real-time over mainstream IP networks – just like the rest of the public.” He particularly highlighted one of its “chief benefits” as “providing a reliable means of sending text communications to 911 services in an IP world.”

The Commissioners were almost universally supportive of the rule, with only Commissioner Michael O’Reilly dissenting in part. He fully supported the proposed elimination of the obsolete technology requirements. However, he dissented from the adoption of real-time text, arguing that “private sector investment and innovation [should] continue to provide communications solutions” and that real-time text “will be surpassed overtime” leaving the FCC’s rules requiring and regulating real-time text “ingrained in a bygone era, far outliving their usefulness.

The comment period for the proposed rule closed last month.