Telephony / August 12, 1996
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Up until three years ago, deaf people couldn't communicate by phone at all. Then came telecommunications relay services (TRS), which relayed conver-sations around the country but still required the hearing-impaired to type their questions and answers on a keyboard fitted to a dedicated phone line -- a cumbersome process at best.
Now a much more natural and efficient system known as Video Relay Interpreting (VRI) may soon be put into practice, say officials of both Sprint and the FCC.
VRI allows deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired people to communicate using American Sign Language while sitting at a desktop computer with video capabilities. A Sprint interpreter viewing the live video relays the conversation in voice or sign language back and forth with the person being called.
"The technology itself is in general use. It's becoming more and more widespread," said Sprint spokesman James Fisher. "Where Sprint provides the added value is in the training of the video relay operators."
Late last month, during the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, VRI was publicly tested when gold-medal swimmer Tom Dolan communicated via video relay with Tommy Parker, a deaf student at Washington's Gallaudet University.
Parker, accompanied by FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, placed the call from FCC headquarters to Dolan in Atlanta, via a videoconference link to a VRI center in Houston.
The event, sponsored by the FCC's Disabilities Task Force, commemorated the third anniversary of the launching of TRS and the sixth anniversary of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandated that Americans with hearing and speech disabilities have access to standard voice telephone service.
Shortly after, Hundt called TRS "the fastest-growing type of communications today," and said it's a direct result of the Telecom Act of 1996, which allows local phone companies and long-distance providers to enter each other's formerly protected markets.
"Soon, in one or two years, it'll be possible for two deaf people to talk to each other, without an operator, over their PC screens. One year ago, this wouldn't have been possible," said Hundt, speaking at a recent Washington gathering of public-radio broadcasting executives. "Sprint will now be offering this product as part of its local exchange service. Sprint would never have invested in this if not for this law."
Hundt added that "of the $250 billion in revenues generated by telecom companies a year, we take $240 million and put it into a common fund to underwrite the cost of relay services all over the country." It's inconceivable that market economics could have made such a call affordable without government intervention."
Last year, VRI was successfully tested during a 30-day trial in Austin, Tex., con-ducted by Sprint, Southwestern Bell and the Texas Public Utility Commission. On Sept. 1, Sprint will launch a second trial -- this one lasting 90 days and covering 10 sites across the Lone Star State. Conceivably, hearing-impaired customers could one day tap into VRI from home, as long as they have a PC and widely available ISDN phone service.
"Current relay calls rely on the typing speed rather than the speaking speed of a person," said Sprint customer relations manager Mark Seeger, who declined to say how much Sprint was investing in the new technology for competitive reasons. "Even though the initial cost may be higher for video, if the conversation time is shorter, it may be worth that investment, bcause you're cutting down on talk time."
While no state has actually purchased the service from Sprint, several -- including California, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia -- have expressed interest.
Seeger said the 90-day Texas trial "will determine if the service is something that consumers would enjoy using." He added that "the FCC is getting ready to issue a notice of inquiry which will ask state governments for comments on whether or not they view VRI as part of the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act."
Observes the FCC's Hundt: "There are an estimated 28 million Americans with hearing and speech disabilities, many of whom communicate primarily in sign language. Video Relay Interpreting recognizes that and takes TRS one step further to better serve people with disabilities and to fulfill the spirit of the ADA."