April 14, 2015 - 2:27 pm
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

A few months ago, I received a note from a woman in New Mexico, recounting her recent experience in making a 911 call. She had fallen in her home, alone, badly hurt and bleeding.  She dialed 911, reached an emergency center, an ambulance was dispatched and she was taken to a medical facility.

You might be wondering why someone would write to the Chairman of the FCC about a 911 call. The reason is that this was an emergency for someone who is deaf and the call was made through Video Relay Service (VRS), a program administered by the FCC. The woman had never before had a reason to make an emergency call and, when she made the call, she wondered whether the technology would work.

Most of us take for granted that when we make a phone call, the call goes through. You call from any type of device to any phone number. You don’t think about how the call travels – via circuit or packet, time division or code division, copper or fiber, 1.9 GHz or 700 MHz Networks are interconnected. Telecommunications software is increasingly interoperable.  

Now, imagine that you hear with your eyes. You contact friends and family by video calling and your native language is American Sign Language (ASL).  And when you call a hearing person who does not speak your language, the call is automatically routed over the Internet through a VRS sign language interpreter who conveys what you want to communicate to the hearing person.  The VRS interpreter voices everything you sign to the hearing person and signs back everything that the hearing person says.  

One hundred and twenty-five million minutes of these three-way calls took place last year between deaf and hearing persons. Calls most of us take for granted. Routine calls, work calls, calls to friends and family, calls to government offices, to businesses.  And calls to 911. To quote our friend in New Mexico: “911 VP [videophone] saved my leg, and probably my life…y'all done good, very good.”

The bad news in this good news story is that while digital technology has opened the door to making such a call without a third party relay interpreter, that capability is very limited. Most federal agencies, for instance, don’t have direct video access for those who communicate in ASL.  Neither do most companies.

Since June 2014, however, the FCC has been operating a video-equipped “ASL Consumer Support Line” to allow consumers who use ASL to get their inquiries answered by signing to FCC staff who communicate in ASL.  The Internet makes this process easier than ever. Instead of requiring a special phone to make the call, any person who is deaf can sign over the Internet using any computer or mobile device with a camera. Likewise, it is not hard to set up similar equipment at the receiving end.

Based on the success at the FCC and the advance of technology, it is now time to expand direct video calling beyond the FCC and make it available to all levels of government and companies who answer consumer inquiries. As the federal agency responsible for the communications of all Americans, the FCC is embarking on a year-long, two-part process to expand direct video connectivity for deaf, hard of hearing, and speech disabled individuals who communicate in ASL.

The first step in this process is evangelizing the success of the FCC’s ASL Consumer Support Line. The simultaneous second step in this process is to harness technology to make it easier for both the ASL caller and recipient to talk to each other. Building on our experience, we are constructing a “cut out the middleman” Video Access Platform for callers and call-takers. By this time next year we will have in the market an application usable on any fixed or mobile operating system that will bring up a list of participating agencies and companies.  All an ASL-user will need to do is click or tap on who they want to talk to and the call will be connected to someone fluent in ASL. For those receiving the calls, the platform’s open APIs will enable easy interoperability.

After seeing what the FCC did, the Small Business Administration, to their great credit, has adopted our approach. Other federal agencies, particularly those with high call volumes, like the Social Security Administration and IRS, should consider offering direct video calling as well. The same should hold true for those companies with large numbers of customers who are deaf, hard of hearing and speech disabled. Hiring an ASL signer to respond to direct video communication from these customers makes all the sense in the world.  Not only will this facilitate communication access; if the individuals hired have a disability themselves, this will also increase their employment opportunities.

This won’t eliminate the need for third-party sign language interpretation to communicate outside of the platform, but for those government agencies and large companies with a high volume of callers who are deaf, hard of hearing and speech-disabled, it should be a no brainer. One government agency, for instance, handled 3.1 million minutes of interpreted (VRS) calls last year. One telephone company handled 1.3 million minutes from people who use ASL last year.

The need is self-evident; 125 million video-assisted minutes last year speaks for itself. The FCC’s new platform will enable any agency or company to communicate directly with an important part of their constituency or consumer base. This isn’t the final step, but it is an important step to putting all Americans on equal footing for communications and information.