FCC OKs new rules for transition to RTT

The FCC was able to push through at least one more item on outgoing Chairman Tom Wheeler’s agenda: Passage of new rules to allow phone companies to replace the old text telephone communication, or TTY, with more modern, real-time text, or RTT.

RTT is considered superior to TTY so that people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can use text to communicate by phone. TTY was invented in 1964 and was designed to allow a user to type on a keyboard and have those tones broadcast on a phone line to a user on the other end, thus supporting non-voice conversations. RTT works with IP-based networks and offers the ability to send text as it’s being created, so it’s more natural and akin to an actual voice telephone call on a modern-day network.

Using sign language ahead of a formal vote on the agenda item at Thursday’s open FCC meeting, Wheeler thanked the hearing community’s support for the item, saying it’s a “wonderful step forward.”

Under the new rules, carriers and manufacturers will be allowed to use the more advanced and interoperable RTT technology to meet their obligation to support accessible text communications services. AT&T and Verizon were supportive of the concept behind the new rules, with AT&T prompting the matter when it filed a petition asking the FCC to initiate a rulemaking that would authorize the industrywide substitution of RTT for TTY technology for wireless networks.

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The decision to clear a path from TTY to RTT was unanimous. The commission started the proceeding earlier this year. Among the benefits of RTT is that it can facilitate emergency communications by providing a means of sending text communication to 911 in an IP world. It also ensures that incomplete messages will be sent in an emergency, so if a 911 caller is cut off before pressing the “send” key, dispatchers still get alerted.

Outgoing Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that in the not-too-distant future, gloves with wireless sensors will translate sign language into text and speech in real time, but in the meantime, TTY devices need to be replaced with RTT to enable character by character text transmission without specialized hardware.

“For those who choose to move forward, we require Real-Time Text to be interoperable across networks and devices as well as backward-compatible with TTY systems,” she said in prepared remarks. “Real-Time Text will also need to support 911 communications and simultaneous voice and text features. I hope in time, Real-Time Text is universally available as a native function. But for now, transition to this technology will transition our accessibility policies to the future. And that’s something we should all support.”

Earlier this month, AT&T in an ex parte filing (PDF) said it is making good progress in implementing RTT and said it was evaluating the features its customers want in an RTT offering, but it urged the commission not to include a list of specific features in a mandate or as a performance objective. A mandate would prematurely impose technical requirements on an RTT technology that’s still in its infancy and that may not support the feature, especially in early releases, the operator said.

Prior to the vote, representatives of the Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI), Gallaudet University Technology Access Program, Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH-RERC) and others told the commission that the transition from analog to IP-based wireless telecommunications represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make RTT available to all users, and they noted the consensus-building that occurred between consumer groups and industry to get to this point.