Modernizing Real-Time Communications Technology for All Customers

By: Aaron Bangor
May 18, 2015 6:05 PM ET

Modernizing Real-Time Communications Technology for All Customers

With the fast-growing adoption of smartphones and tablets, broadband internet, and wireless service, digital technology increasingly surrounds us.  One notable exception is the once-popular landline, “plain old telephone service.”  This analog, circuit-switched technology has been the gold standard for communications for over a century.  However, the last 20+ years has seen a dramatic change in how – and where – people communicate.  As the capabilities of new technologies expand with the change in underlying technology, the essential need for people with disabilities to communicate in real-time does not change.

The TTY (short for TeleTYpewriter, also called a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf [TDD]) was invented back in 1964.  By connecting a then-old teletype machine with a telephone, a TTY lets a user to type on a keyboard, resulting in audio tones being broadcast down the phone line.  If there is another TTY on the other end, the tones get turned back into the text sent, allowing a telephone service to support non-voice conversations.  Back in the mid-1960s this was an amazing invention and a breakthrough for the independence of communication for people with hearing loss and speech disabilities.

Eventually, TTY hardware was simplified and use by people with disabilities grew.  Perhaps most importantly, all 9-1-1 call centers were (and still are) equipped to take calls from TTY users.  As technology progressed over time and other text-based options for communicating became available (e.g., email, SMS, instant messaging, etc.), TTY use has declined.  However, TTY remains the only universal method for having a conversation in real time over the telephone network, including in emergency situations, and comprises several important characteristics:

  • character-by-character text transmission, allowing “in the moment” conversations;
  • can be intermixed with the speech on the same call, which supports users who cannot speak but can hear and users without hearing who can speak;
  • interoperable with any other phone subscriber that also has a compatible TTY.

Although services such as email, text messaging, and instant messaging have been widely adopted, including in the communities of users with hearing loss and speech disabilities, they do not meet all of the same requirements that TTYs do.

Yet, moving to new technologies is not always easy.  When the wireless phone network transitioned from analog (1G) to digital (2G), TTYs began to have difficulties.  A multi-year effort was needed by industry, government agencies, and standards-making bodies to find a way to make TTYs fully function again.  Similarly, as we move to an all-digital technology infrastructure, we still must ensure that people with disabilities have equitable access to phone service.  TTYs can be made to work with Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone systems, but there are several technical hurdles that must be overcome that have been well-documented, including by the FCC’s Emergency Access Advisory Committee. 

Instead of continuing to use TTYs, an IP-based replacement does exist, often referred to as “real-time text” (RTT).  Instead of converting typed letters into audio tones and sent down the phone line, the inputted text is kept as text and transmitted over the data network simultaneously with the phone call.  RTT provides the benefits of TTYs (i.e., it is real-time and character-by-character, it is conversational, and speech can be intermixed) without the drawbacks of TTY (i.e., resource intensive, slow, and sensitive to network issues).  In addition, RTT provides a more user-friendly experience because it does not require someone to buy and connect a separate keyboard device, allows for both parties to send and receive text at the same time, and it supports numerous languages.

While we consider how best to make the transition from the old network technologies to the new, it is interesting to consider the possibilities that real-time text (RTT) affords us.  Not only could RTT be a more user-centric, accessible, and technically improved solution to meeting the needs of users with disabilities, it could also open up possibilities for all users to interact over the “phone” in more creative and expressive ways.  And that is the essence of Universal Design.