The Federal Communications Commission last week approved one of the most important advances in communications technology for deaf and hard of hearing people in decades, in one of the agency's final acts under the leadership of outgoing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
In a move that's being hailed by accessibility advocates and leaders in the deaf and hard of hearing community as a historic step forward, the five-member FCC unanimously adopted rules to facilitate the transition from outdated, analog teletype (TTY) devices to a new, internet-based, real-time text messaging standard (RTT) compatible with the latest smartphones.
As a result of the FCC's action, the nation's wireless carriers and device manufacturers will be required to support RTT functionality, which allows real-time text messaging—without the need to hit "send"—in which the recipient can instantly see letters, characters and words as they are being typed.
"We now have the opportunity—as we design our new communications system that is based on internet-protocol—to finally make our nation's communications systems accessible to everyone," FCC Chairman Wheeler said at the agency's monthly meeting last Thursday.
This innovation will facilitate more natural, conversation-friendly communication for deaf and hard of hearing people—without the need for separate, specialized hardware. It will also allow 911 operators to receive incomplete messages during an emergency, potentially saving lives. RTT technology is expected to be interoperable across wireless networks and devices, creating the potential for unprecedented ease of communication between deaf and hearing people.
"This is a way for deaf and hard of hearing consumers to communicate in ways that haven't been available before."
"This isn't just a fancy new version of text messaging," said Drew Simshaw, a staff attorney at the Georgetown University Law Center who represented Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI) during the FCC process. "This is a closer equivalent to the type of communication that most hearing consumers take for granted. This is a way for deaf and hard of hearing consumers to communicate in ways that haven't been available before."
For decades, tens of thousands of deaf, hard of hearing, speech-impaired, and deaf-blind people have relied on TTY devices, which are rudimentary keyboards connected to the traditional PSTN telephone network that facilitate non-verbal, text-based communication. (For deaf-blind people, these machines can be connected to devices that produce a Braille display.)
The origins of TTY devices date back to the 1960s, when Dr. James Marsters, a deaf orthodontist, worked with two colleagues to develop a groundbreaking system that used an acoustic coupler—what we now call a modem—to send audio tones over the phone network that were then converted into readable messages. In their earliest form, TTY devices were bulky, slow-operating machines that weighed as much as 200 pounds, and printed messages between the sender and recipient on paper.
In later years, Marsters would help advance the development of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), which improved phone communication between deaf and hearing people with the assistance of a third-party person, known as a "communications assistant" (CA), who translated TTY text messages from the sender into speech for the hearing recipient.
The advent of video-calling in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the development of Video Relay Services (VRS), in which deaf people use American Sign Language to communicate by video with a CA, who then translates the sign language into speech.
A Successful Translation From Research to Reality
During a wide-ranging interview with Motherboard using VRS along with Skype messaging and email, Dr. Christian Vogler, who is Director of Gallaudet University's Technology Access Program, described the importance of the transition for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Vogler, a computer scientist who has been deaf since birth, was a driving force behind the transition and was specifically cited by both FCC Chairman Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai for his contributions to the process. (Gallaudet University is a world-renowned liberal arts university based in Washington, DC, where all of the programs and services are designed for deaf and hard of hearing students.)
"Being at the FCC meeting was very emotional for me for two reasons," Vogler said. "First, because consumers are getting more access to telecommunications services. Second, because this is a successful translation from research into practice that has taken 15 years. I have been working so hard to push this through and get it passed by the FCC."
Vogler, 43, became interested in engineering and computer science at an early age. "I got my first computer at the age of 12, the venerable C64," he told Motherboard. "From there one thing led to another. I became interested in what made computers tick, got into self-taught programming, and eventually figured out that this was what I wanted to do for a living."
By the time Vogler earned his PhD in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, he had already stopped using TTY devices in the late-1990s in favor of VRS, for several reasons, he said.
First, the TTY devices of that era couldn't distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters, nor could they produce important characters like the "@" symbol—a major drawback for an internet-savvy computer scientist. Second, the devices were too time-consuming. They could only transmit 60 words per minute, and only one party to a TTY conversation could send messages at a time, slowing discussions to a crawl.
But VRS, while faster and more efficient than TTY, had drawbacks as well, Vogler said. First, he had given up the ability to have direct conversations with businesses, colleagues, friends, and family members who also had TTY devices. With VRS there is always a human intermediary. Second, Vogler had lost the ability to have a direct connection to 911 services, which is something that most hearing people take for granted, but could lead to a life-or-death situation for deaf or hard of hearing people during an emergency.
"In dropping TTY we gave up direct communication access with the mainstream phone world, and direct effective emergency calling," Vogler said. "RTT offers us the opportunity to get both back."
Wireless Providers and Device Makers Will Take The Lead
The FCC's vote establishes a technological standard for RTT services that was spearheaded by a team of developers and advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing community, in conjunction with the nation's leading telecom providers, including AT&T, which took a leading role in the process, as part of the industry-wide Internet Protocol (IP) transition from traditional telephony to internet-based communication.
Over the coming months and years, wireless companies like AT&T and device manufacturers like Samsung are expected to introduce RTT apps for consumers, with the ultimate goal being "native" functionality baked into, and interoperable with, all smartphones and text-messaging apps. Ultimately, RTT technology could prove so popular among all consumers, not just deaf and hard of hearing people, that it could become a new standard for text-messaging services.
For FCC Chairman Wheeler, who announced last week that he is stepping down in January, the successful vote advancing the TTY to RTT transition amounts to a poignant and deeply symbolic conclusion to a three-year tenure during which he made communications accessibility a key priority for the nation's top telecom regulatory agency. In his comments at last Thursday's meeting, Wheeler used American Sign Language to praise and thank the assembled deaf and hard of hearing advocates who have worked tirelessly to encourage FCC action on this issue.
"Chairman Tom Wheeler has, in his few years at the FCC, boldly and efficiently removed barriers that have long frustrated deaf and hard of hearing people with respect to making telephone calls, watching videos, and using the internet," Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said in a statement. "The NAD thanks him for his dedicated efforts to make the world more accessible for everyone, and wishes him well on his future endeavors."