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FCC NOI: Americans With Disabilities Act

In the Matter of Implementation of Sections 255 and 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, as Enacted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Access to Telecommunications Service, Telecommunications Equipment and Customer Premises Equipment by Persons with Disabilities, WT Docket No. 96-198 REPORT AND ORDER AND FURTHER NOTICE OF INQUIRY (29.9.99) (excerpts)

(at paragraph 173ff.)

G. NOTICE OF INQUIRY 

1. Overview 

173. While we believe this Order takes a dramatic step toward bringing people with disabilities into the information age, we recognize that there is much to be done. There is a vast array of communications-related services available today that are not covered by these rules. In addition, there are new technologies, which may be outside the scope of these rules, being developed that may further revolutionize the way we communicate. These developments will undoubtedly affect access to communications for people with disabilities. We must ensure that the disability community is not denied access to innovative new technologies, for example Internet and computer-based services, that may become complements to, or even replacements for, today's telecommunications services and equipment. 

174. We are cognizant, in general, of the speed with which innovative next generation technologies are changing the way communications services are offered to the public, and the challenges posed to the disability community by these new technologies if they are not accessible. We lack, however, knowledge of the specific characteristics of those changes, and the implications for accessibility for people with disabilities. Given the rapid evolution of communications and the pace of technological innovation, we need to ensure that as new services and networks are developed they are designed to provide access to persons with disabilities. 

175. Accordingly, we are issuing this Notice of Inquiry (NOI) to aid our understanding of the access issues presented by communications services and equipment not covered by the rules we adopt in this Order. Our goal is to take full advantage of the promise of new technology, not only to ensure that advancements do not leave people with disabilities behind, but also to harness the power of innovation to break down the accessibility barriers we face today and prevent their emergence tomorrow. While we are interested in all aspects of communications technology that may present accessibility issues, we specifically request information on two types, Internet telephony and computer-based equipment that replicates telecommunications functionality. First, we ask commenters to address the extent to which Internet telephony has begun, to replace the traditional telecommunications services, including usage patterns by person with disabilities, which Congress clearly intended to be subject to section 255. Second, we ask commenters to advise us on the impact of computer based applications that provide telecommunications functionalities farther into a customer's premise than the point of connection with the public network, such as voicemail capability that resides in a computer connected to a PBX, rather than in a PBX. We ask commenters not to limit their responses to these two areas, however, but rather to raise any issues of innovations in telecommunications that may present accessibility challenges for the disability community. 

176. We are also expressly interested in commenters' views on the extent to which government regulation will be necessary to ensure accessibility of communications technology in the future. We note, for example, the commitment of the Voice on the Net (VON) Coalition to voluntarily ensure that Internet telephony services provided by its members are "accessible as readily achievable", and to take into account disability access needs when developing new products and services. Because of our strong interest in ensuring that the disability community is not denied access to any communications technologies, we ask commenters to tell us what we can do the guarantee that access.

2. Discussion

a. Internet Telephony 

177. Internet Protocol telephony ("Internet" or "IP" telephony) services enable real-time voice transmission using the Internet Protocol (IP), a packet-switched communications protocol. The services can be provided in two basic ways: computer-to-computer IP telephony conducted through special software and hardware at an end user's premises; or phone-to-phone IP telephony conducted through "gateways" that enable applications originating and/or terminating on the public switched network. Phone-to-phone IP telephony is provided through computer gateways that allow end users to make and receive calls using their traditional telephones. Gateways translate the circuit-switched voice signal into IP packets, and vice versa, and perform associated signalling, control, and address translation functions. The voice communications can then be transmitted along with other data on the "public" Internet, or can be routed through intranets or other private data networks for improved performance. 

178. Many commenters urged that we apply the requirements of Section 255 to Internet telephony ("IP telephony") in general or phone-to-phone IP telephony, specifically. They pointed out that, given the evolutions in communications and the rapid pace of technological innovation, we need to ensure that as new services and networks are developed they are designed to provide access to persons with disabilities. They noted that it is during the development stage that accessibility can be most effectively included. We are concerned that consumers who are simply attempting to place or receive a call using standard CPE not have their accessibility disappear or diminished because the call is being transmitted using a new, developing technology. In addition, commenters stated that if persons with disabilities cannot participate in communications over these newly developing networks, they risk becoming further marginalized from society. 

179. We ask commenters to provide any further information as to the extent to which phone-to-phone IP telephony services might impact the disability community, and the steps, we should take to address any adverse impacts in order to fulfill the goals of section 255, or otherwise promote the accessibility of this technology. Commenting parties should offer specific suggestions as to the appropriate role for the Commission in guaranteeing access and the statutory basis for that role. For example, commenters should address ways in which phone to phone IP telephony may be interpreted as falling within the purview of section 255. Commenters should provide specific definitions of the services or equipment to which the statute might apply, and the appropriate means of limiting its application to only those services and equipment. Commenters should address the ways, if any, in which industry bodies can ensure access without regulatory action. Commenters should also describe the specific access issues or experiences that might arise with IP telephony. For example, will TTY tones be adequately transmitted in a packet-switched environment? Will persons with speech disabilities whose speech patterns and voice outputs from alternative and augmentative communications devices may fall outside of traditional voice patterns, face additional communications barriers with packetized voice services? 

180. We further ask commenters to address what efforts manufacturers of equipment that performs phone-to-phone IP telephony functions and providers of phone-to-phone IP telephony services are currently making to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible. What improvements in accessibility may be possible through the use of phone-to-phone IP telephony? Are there natural opportunities for incorporating accessibility into IP telephony? can greater accessibility be achieved if requirements are adopted early in the development of IP Telephony? Is it possible that greater levels of accessibility will be readily achievable with IP telephony than conventional telephony? How will compatibility with assistive technology affect the use of IP telephony? 

181. Commenters should also address the extent to which IP telephony is now, or soon will be, an effective substitute for conventional circuit-switched telephony. As Internet usage grows, phone-to-phone voice IP telephony may be used with increasing frequency as an alternative to more traditional telephone service. How extensive is Internet telephony usage today? What is the projected usage of Internet telephony in the near future? What is the projected use of various kinds of IP telephony by persons with disabilities? 

182. Commenters are asked to describe differences in characteristics between computer-based and phone-based IP telephony, and whether such differences merit different treatment by the Commission. Given the rapid pace of technological change in the telecommunications marketplace, we also ask commenters to apprise us of any new technologies that may impact the availability of accessible services and equipment. 

b. Computer Based Equipment 

183. We also seek comment on another aspect of the network of the future -- the movement of telecommunications and information service functions from the network, or the terminal equipment which connects directly to the network, into computer equipment which does not connect to the network directly. This computer hardware and software is not typically regarded as CPE, but may, in fact, deliver the same functions we seek to make accessible. For instance, voicemail, interactive menus, or phone-to-phone IP telephony in current network topologies can reside in equipment located on the service provider's premises, but such functionalities are also available in several forms to end users on their own premises. For example, voicemail can be purchased from a carrier, can be provided via software and a private branch exchange (PBX), or can be provided through a computer that connects with the PBX, but is not generally regarded as part of the PBX. It is this latter application as to which we seek comment. 

184. These software applications shift the potential for accessibility solutions from the core of the network to the end user's premises. We therefore ask commenters to address whether equipment that provides these capabilities, but which does not connect directly into the public network (or otherwise directly receive the transmission of the telecommunications), should be considered to be CPE subject to the requirements of section 255. We note, for example, that this Order does not currently reach a software telephone or the personal computer on which it resides, even though it performs the same functions as the traditional telephone. 

185. We ask commenters to address the need to include this computer-based equipment as CPE or otherwise apply the provisions of these rules to that equipment in order to ensure access. We also ask commenters to address whether failure to bring such equipment within the scope of section 255 would create a serious gap in coverage that would interfere with our ability to effectively implement its provisions. Commenters should offer suggestions as to the appropriate role for the Commission in ensuring access for this kind of equipment and the statutory basis for that role. We also ask about the potential for this kind of equipment for improving accessibility and its compatibility with assistive technology. Is it possible that greater levels of accessibility will be readily achievable if this kind of equipment has accessibility requirements? 

 

 

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