1999 Conference Proceedings

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Paul W. Schroeder
American Foundation for the Blind

The "electronic revolution" holds the promise of nearly equal access to information for people with disabilities. But only if we can ensure that advanced information technology and communications networks will be available, affordable and accessible. This paper explores three communications policies addressing this issue.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to lessen regulation of the telecommunications industry and enact policies to spur more competition resulting in advanced telecommunications technologies and services.

The Act added three important, interrelated provisions to communications law: universal service (Section 254), disability access (Section 255), and incentives for advanced telecommunications capabilities (Section 706). Taken together, these sections could lead to dramatic increases in new, fully accessible telecommunications services to all Americans, but the reality so far has been disappointing. Several barriers created by the telecommunications statute, communications legal history and current interpretations by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), contribute to the problem.

The groundbreaking disability access provisions found in Section 255 require telecommunications products and services to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable, or, failing that, compatible with "existing assistive technology, if readily achievable.)

  1. Unfortunately, for those who hoped that Section 255 would bring access to advanced Internet-based services, two new definitions included in the Telecommunications Act are proving especially problematic. According to the new law, the term telecommunications means transmission of information without change in the form or content of the information.
  2. On the other hand, almost any manipulation of communications data is defined in the Act as an "information service." This includes "generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications ..."
  3. Section 255 specifically covers only telecommunications services and Information" services' are not mentioned. According to the FCC, telecommunications services include basic telephone calls and services that facilitate the completion of telephone calls such as speed dialing, call forwarding and caller identification.
  4. The FCC considers voice mail, electronic mail, fax, and audiotext to be information services and therefore not covered under Section 255.
  5. Disability advocacy organizations raised many concerns with the FCC's interpretation of covered telecommunications services, noting that as services and transmission platforms converge, the distinction between traditional telecommunications services and information services are trivial and should be reevaluated. For example, increasingly callers must be able to access voice mail systems to complete a telephone call. Communications devices are merging capabilities for handling voice, fax or e-mail messages; and, it is now possible to transmit phone calls over the Internet and to retrieve e-mail and Web documents using a voice telephone.

The final rule implementing Section 255 may be approved by the FCC as soon as January, 1999. However, it may require Congressional action to ensure access to communication via technology, in whatever form, whether phone calls over the internet or e-mail received on a phone handset. The other two policies considered here are designed to facilitate access to telecommunications networks by all Americans. Universal service is an historic concept designed to ensure that people with low-incomes could afford telephones and that the telephone network would extend even into hard to reach rural America.

In the Telecommunications Act, Congress sought to establish principles todefine universal service. While these principles include laudable goals such as affordable access to advanced telecommunications and information services throughout the Nation, including access for low-income consumers,

  1. The actual services are to be based on market demand and the set of services provided by telephone companies.
  2. Thus, the FCC has defined universal service as including access to voice grade access, touchtone service, single- party service, access to emergency services, access to operator services, and access to directory assistance.
  3. Efforts to expand universal service to ensure affordable access to more advanced services and communications networks have been stymied thus far by the Act's requirement that the services included must be those subscribed to by a majority of residential customers and the fact that equitable contributions to universal service subsidy programs are required by all companies that provide covered services.

However, the FCC must review this definition periodically, so it may eventually expand the scope of services covered.

Section 706 of the Act is complementary to universal service in that it is intended to spur the introduction of incentives that would increase the amount of telecommunications capacity available to all Americans. meaningful access to advanced communications services requires a solution to the so-called "last mile" problem (the copper telephone wire that links homes to the telephone network). The copper wire is fine for carrying voice but has generally been considered capable of carrying only a narrow stream of information.

In addition, the public telephone network itself is poorly designed for transmitting massive amounts of highspeed data because it was built as a circuit-switched network, meaning that an open end-to-end channel is maintained throughout a call. (In packet switched networks like the Internet, information is broken up into smaller packets that are transmitted separately over the most efficient path and then reassembled, microseconds later, at their destination. Consequently, Information generally moves very quickly across the high-speed backbone of the Internet, but often quite slowly through the traditional telephone network. However, methods for delivering digital information at high speeds are emerging for traditional wireline telephone, and in other segments of the telecommunications industry, especially wireless, and cable.

The FCC is in the midst of two proceedings on Section 706. The outcome may lead to greater investment in telecommunications infrastructure and a renewed sense of obligation on the part of policymakers to make this higher capacity available to all Americans. Consistent with the procompetitive language of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC has indicated that it will primarily rely on the market and private enterprise to promote the availability of advanced telecommunications services placing a priority on people with low-incomes, people in rural areas, schools, libraries and health care facilities.

  1. The FCC is trying to establish policies that create incentives to increase network capacity to move data from one place to another and ensure that those networks are reasonably available to all Americans. Writing these public interest rules will be at the heart of the Section 706 activity over the next several months.

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