Amidst the usual end-of-year activities and the beginning of a transition of presidential power, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved a historic change for people with disabilities. On December 15, the FCC adopted a rule requiring telecommunications companies to support Real-Time Text (RTT) in their systems, replacing the outdated text telephony services (TTY). This rule positively impacts people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or who experience a speech disability by updating the communication technology many rely on.
Tom Wheeler, the outgoing FCC Chairman, described TTY as a “band-aid” that was designed in the 1960s by three deaf men—Weitbrecht, Saks, and Marsters—when telecommunication innovations were developed without their specific needs in mind. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel described TTY as a “relic,” lamenting that the FCC rule lagged behind while other technologies like augmented reality tools for blind individuals surged ahead.
TTY devices look like bulky computer keyboards. The device operates like a modem, sending text typed as audio tones over a phone line to a switchboard which transmits the message to another TTY device. The sent message then appears on a small screen on the receiving TTY device. The first devices weighed up to 200 pounds. Even as devices improved, users could only transmit 60 words per minute, and only one TTY user could type messages at a time.
Video Relay Services (VRS) were developed in the 1990s in order to facilitate communication between TTY users and hearing individuals. Users initiate video chat with a communications assistant and relay their message in American Sign Language; the assistant then translates the message into speech. While VRS improved the rate of communication, users had to depend on a human intermediary to have conversations and could not contact 911 emergency services directly.
One of the biggest advantages of RTT is that text is transmitted automatically without the need to press a send button. This feature allows conversation to flow more naturally, as well as ensure that emergency 911 services can receive at least partial communications from a user that may be in crisis. Another advantage of RTT is that, unlike TTY, it is interoperable with no specialized hardware required for use.
This means that people with disabilities can communicate with devices and smartphones already available on the market.
These aspects are possible because RTT can transmit over IP-enabled networks.
Dr. Christopher Vogler, Director of Gallaudet University’s Technology Access Program, has spent fifteen years researching and advocating for RTT. Dr. Vogler and Norman Williams explain the new mechanisms and the advantages of RTT in the video below.
According to the Technology Access Program, RTT should be expanded under the following timeline:
- December 31, 2017: Big Four carriers [AT&T, Spring, T-Mobile, and Verizon] make RTT available in either downloadable app or in at least one phone
- December 31, 2018: Phone manufacturers include RTT functionality in all new phones
- December 31, 2019: Big Four carriers make RTT available in all new phones
- June 30, 2020: Smaller carriers make RTT available in either downloadable app or in at least one phone
- June 30, 2021: Smaller carriers make RTT available in all new phones
Wheeler charged the industry to work closely with people with disabilities to ensure that the next wave of technology meets their needs. With the requirement to support TTY systems out of the way, industry can now develop not only RTT but also other services like Wi-Fi calling and Voice Over LTE that consumers with disabilities have been requesting. While companies seem willing to embrace the new technology standards, AT&T urged flexibility and asked the FCC not to impose rigid requirements as the technology is still in early stages. TTY and VRS services will still be available as the evolution of RTT begins.