On December 15, 2016, at the last Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) Open Meeting under Chairman Tom Wheeler’s tenure, the Commission voted unanimously to adopt a Report and Order (Order) and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) that permits wireless service providers and device manufacturers to support real-time text (RTT) technology instead of text telephony (TTY) to meet their obligations to provide reliable telephone communications options for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or who have a speech disability. RTT technology uses IP-based networks and allows the user to send text immediately as it is typed without the need to press “send” and the other party receives the text to read as it is being created. The ability to use RTT to meet TTY obligations phases in starting in December 2017 and resellers have until June 2021 to comply.

The FNPRM seeks comment on issues including sun-setting the TTY backwards compatibility requirement and interaction with the telecommunications relay service (TRS). Comments are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register and reply comments are due 30 days later.

The Order results from an AT&T petition seeking both a rulemaking proceeding to allow the use of RTT technology as a substitute for TTY for IP-based voice services and a temporary waiver of the existing requirements to support TTY until a RTT solution could be fully deployed. The FCC agreed to grant both aspects of AT&T’s request. First, the agency granted a temporary waiver of the requirements to support TTY for AT&T and other carriers that sought similar reprieve and agreed to the necessary conditions. Next, the Commission issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that proposed to amend the Commission’s rules to replace the obligations of wireless carriers and device manufacturers to support TTY with obligations to support RTT over wireless IP-based networks.

Instead of imposing an RTT obligation as proposed in the NPRM, the Order takes a permissive approach. The new rules allow providers of IP-based wireless voice services, including interconnected voice over IP, and manufacturers of devices used with IP-enabled voice service to support RTT in lieu of TTY technology if they choose to. The rationale for the new rules is that many communications systems are transitioning to IP-based networks but TTY use on these networks presents barriers to effective communication like degraded signal quality, increased error rates, and decreased reliability.

Sufficient RTT Functionality

In the Order, the Commission outlines the following criteria for what constitutes sufficient RTT support and functionality:

  • RTT communications must be interoperable across networks and devices, which may be achieved by complying with the RFC 4103 technical standard as a safe harbor.
  • RTT must be backwards compatible with TTY technology.
  • RTT service provision must comply with all applicable 911 rules and deliver RTT to public safety answering points that are able to receive RTT. Since RTT will replace existing support for TTY, RTT 911 calls will be subject to the same location information requirements. The Commission will, however, consider waiver requests where an entity asserts the location functionality is not technically feasible.
  • Networks and devices must be configured so RTT can be initiated to and received from the same telephone number that is used to initiate and receive voice communications.

Implementation Timeline

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Other Issues Addressed in the Order

The Order explains that RTT technology will be categorized as an electronic messaging service as defined under the CVAA. The Commission concludes in the Order that it is premature to adopt rules governing the application of RTT to wireline IP-based services. However, it notes that the docket will be kept open to receive additional input and allow for further exploration on the appropriateness of RTT as an alternative to TTY for wireline services and devices. Additionally, the Order seems to leave the option open to consider RTT support for products and services not designed to be interconnected with the public switched telephone network at a later date. The Commission also acknowledges its intent to consider updates to these rules as technology evolves. Finally, regarding additional RTT features raised in the NPRM, the FCC encourages industry to coordinate with consumer groups and ensure that efforts are taken to test the viability or feasibility of such RTT capabilities.

FNPRM Topics

In the FNPRM, the Commission seeks further comment on a few remaining issues regarding the transition from TTY to RTT support.

  • Backwards compatibility with TTY: The Commission concluded it would be premature to set a deadline to sunset the obligation to enable backwards compatibility between RTT and TTY without collecting information about the deployment of RTT and its effectiveness. The FNPRM seeks comment on the type of data and metrics that can be used to monitor the availability and acceptance of RTT services and devices and the best mechanism for collecting such data.
  • TRS Requirements: The Commission seeks comment on the costs, benefits, and technical feasibility of enabling RTT capability for various forms of telecommunications relay service (TRS). The FNPRM also seeks input on whether this feature should be mandated or simply allowed and the extent to which RTT capability reduces the reliance on TRS.
  • Additional RTT Features: The FCC seeks comment on whether additional RTT features like enabling Braille display users to suspend incoming text when typing or offering a block mode option, allowing users to hold onto a text while it is being composed will enhance service provider and manufacturer ability to meet performance objectives for people with certain types of disabilities, like deaf-blindness.