June 2, 2016 - 11:34 am
By Alison Kutler | Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

Over the past two decades, Americans have experienced a historic evolution in the way we communicate. The proliferation of mobile communications services and products has changed how we communicate by telephone in ways many never imagined possible—giving us instant access to our friends, family, and colleagues.  The same is true for Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing.  As phone networks migrate to IP-based environments, we once again are at a pivotal point in the evolution of accessible communications. 

The FCC recently adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding a proposal to use real-time text as a replacement technology for TTY – teletypewriter technology.  Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing have relied on TTYs to communicate by text over phone lines for more than 50 years.  As described in the NPRM, however, what once was a life-changing technology for accessible communications is now limited and less reliable in today’s Internet-based environment.  Not surprisingly, TTY use has been declining steadily as the transition to IP networks accelerates and reliance on services that new networks enable grows.

Given the explosive use of text messaging by so many in today’s society, one might ask:  “Well, why not just use mobile text messaging services instead of TTYs?”  The short answer is that some choose to do so. The reason is that text message services don’t allow users to send messages in real time, with each letter of the message appearing for the recipient as it is being typed - allowing for overlapping, conversational communications.  As a consequence, without real-time text there would be no means for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to send text over distances in real time over IP networks – akin to the real-time communication that voice users will have over these networks.

Fortunately, the record described in the NPRM suggests that a solution – “real-time text” (RTT) – may be within reach, and can be brought to market and provide persons with disabilities an IP-based option for more conversational text messaging.  Using RTT, you would be able to send messages as they are being typed – without having to hit the send key – and your message could be read and received in real time.  One of the many advantages of RTT is that it provides a path for consumers to communicate their thoughts as they develop just as one would during telephone calls and in-person conversations.  While TTY services have this feature, real-time text no longer requires turn-taking, is faster, and has far more characters that even allow you to communicate in multiple languages. 

More good news: consumers would not need to purchase any special equipment. RTT is designed for IP networks. It’s compatible with and can be built into off-the-shelf devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers.

Also, it is a step forward for emergency communications. Public safety operators who use IP networks would be able to gather crucial information more quickly. Imagine, you’re unable to use your phone for voice communications, but could text details about your emergency situation to an E911 operator without having to hit the send button. They say seconds count. RTT would enable you to communicate during those precious seconds.

The recent NPRM is an outgrowth of input and feedback that we have received from industry, the deaf and hard of hearing community, and other consumer groups.  Our goal is to address the needs of people with disabilities who use text to communicate as we transition from circuit-switched to IP services.  And, we want to do so in a way that ensures disability access to 21st century communication technologies with the flexibility needed by industry to drive innovation and competition. 

As part of that process, we invite you to review the NPRM, which can be found here, and to follow its instructions for filing comments. We look forward to your input and to working with you and all stakeholders to ensure accessible communications services for all consumers.