Telecommunications Access: A Challenge to Succeed
Dale N. Hatfield
Chief, Office of Engineering and Technology
Federal Communications Commission
The Association of Access Engineering Specialists
Technical Development Workshop
Long Beach, CA
June 30, 1999
Thank you for the very kind introduction. I am very pleased to be here in Long Beach to attend this AAES Disability Access Technical Development Workshop. I am pleased for a host of reasons. First, it enabled me to attend the RESNA Awards Ceremony last evening and to convey Chairman's Kennard's personal greeting regarding your annual meeting and this workshop on access engineering. Second, it allows me to express my own support for the goals of the AAES and, at the same time, learn more about the techniques, successes and challenges facing your critical discipline.
At the awards ceremony last evening, I quoted from Chairman Kennard's letter so I won't do that in detail here again here today. But I do want to note that, in his greeting, the Chairman spoke of his commitment to seeing that all people receive the benefits of the wonderful technological revolution that is occurring in the telecommunications field. Quite frankly, this commitment to inclusiveness -- and the commitment of the other Commissioners -- played a major role in my decision to postpone my own retirement and to return to government service.
The general notion of universal service, of course, has a long history in telecommunications. But in the early days of the industry, the focus was on extending the geographic reach of telegraph and then telephone services as exemplified by the universal service language in the Communications Act of 1934. Prior to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Commission -- working with State regulators -- had taken other steps to encourage universal service. It developed its Life-Line and Link-Up-America plans to help bring persons with low income onto the network and it developed economic support mechanisms for carriers providing services in high cost areas. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture, through the Rural Electrification Administration (REA -- now the Rural Utilities Service, RUS), was encouraging wider telephone network deployment through its various subsidy programs.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 reinforced the importance of universal service and provided for various means of extending telecommunications services to insular and high cost areas and to making sure that schools, libraries, and rural healthcare facilities can gain access to advanced telecommunications services. Most relevant to this gathering is the fact that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 explicitly addressed the issue of accessibility to telecommunications services and equipment by persons with disabilities. It recognized that you don't have to be poor or live in an insular or high cost area to be isolated, cutoff or segregated from enjoying the full benefits of the telecommunications revolution.
More specifically, Section 255 of the Communications Act, along with Section 251(a)(2), now make it a matter of national policy that manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable. To carry out the purposes of the '96 Act, the Congress assigned certain responsibilities to the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Board -- the Access Board -- and to my agency, the Federal Communications Commission. Importantly, and I will return to this in more detail in a moment, the Congress assigned to the FCC the role of enforcement.
To implement its obligations under the '96 Act, the Access Board convened a Telecommunications Access Advisory Committee (TAAC) to develop recommended equipment accessibility guidelines for consideration by the Access Board. Thereafter, the Access Board adopted the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines for equipment, drawing heavily upon the TAAC report recommendations. The TAAC played another important role -- I understand that much of the impetus and underlying philosophy of AAES was developed during the TAAC process in the sub-committee on compliance.
In April 1998, the Commission adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) dealing with its implementation of Sections 255 and 251(a)(2) of the Act. Over two hundred individuals, organizations, and businesses filed comments, reply comments, or both in response to the NPRM. As many of you probably know by now, the Commission is expected to issue a Report and Order in just two weeks time -- at its open meeting on July 14th.
Because the Commission is at a critical point in its decision making process, I am limited in my ability to discuss or characterize its decision. However, I would like to take a few minutes to express our expectations or vision on how things should work under Section 255. I should add -- indeed, I should have said at the outset -- that the views I express here today are my own, and they do not necessarily reflect the views of any individual Commissioner, the Commission, or any other Commission staff person. In talking about our vision, I would like to address two areas: (1) the nature and implications of the technological revolution that is taking place around us and (2) the absolutely critical role that access engineering can -- indeed must -- play in ensuring that the benefits of that revolution flow to all of our people, including those with disabilities.
Nature and Implications of the Technological Revolution
Many of you are engineers and you understand the fundamental shifts that are taking place in our telecommunications networks. These shifts include the migration from circuit switching to packet switching and true bandwidth on demand, the movement toward increasingly intelligent, programmable wireline and wireless networks, the development of increasingly intelligent and powerful end user equipment, the increased ability to deliver broadband services, and the increasing importance of wireless as a means of accessing these networks. While I won't take the time to discuss these developments in detail, they add up to a revolution that promises to allow us to communicate anytime, anyplace, and in any mode or combination of modes -- voice, data, image, and video. Because these developments add up to major changes in the way we communicate, the way we entertain ourselves, the way we do business, the way we learn, and the way we are employed, their importance can hardly be over-estimated.
As Chairman Kennard said in a speech late last year, "¼ properly harnessed, these networks and devices create a potent platform upon which to serve the needs of all of our citizens, including those with disabilities." They create new and expanded opportunities for accessibility and inclusiveness. They do so because these rapidly evolving networks and devices have microprocessors and software at their core. Unlike buildings made of steel and concrete, this technology has programming at its core -- programming that controls the features and functions available. In a practical sense, this means that when engineers think in broad terms about the range of human characteristics that may interact with the networks and devices they are designing, they can program in the capabilities to have alternative, flexible interfaces for input and output. Modes of input can include tactile controls or voice. Modes of output can include graphical images, textual prose, speech synthesis, or Braille displays. And, of course, the expanding availability of wireless access means that the designer can deliver those capabilities directly to the end user -- wherever they might be -- rather than imposing on the end user the need to come to the network.
Thus, as I indicated a moment ago, we envision a software-driven network -- a network of networks really -- that allows us to communicate anytime, anyplace, and in any mode or combination of modes. The potential is there for us to use this increased functionality and flexibility to bring the benefits of the telecommunications revolution to all Americans, including those who have traditionally faced accessibility barriers to telecommunications products and services. Of course, we face challenges in realizing that potential.
As I see it, one of the major challenges we face is the sheer speed at which these developments are occurring. In the days of electromechanical switching and electromechanical end user devices, the pace of development was relatively slow. In the case of the telephone network, there were steady improvements in the interior of the network, but the basic characteristics of the service remained remarkably stable over the 100 years or so it took to proliferate. This allowed time for experts in assistive technology to work in relative isolation and to develop access devices such as TTYs for persons who are deaf. Now, of course, the pace of change is much faster. Product cycles for devices like cellular phones and Personal Data Assistants are measured in months, not years. Because of the increasing use of open platforms or open architectures -- as exemplified by the Internet -- it is quite literally possible for individual entrepreneurs and inventors to develop software that can be used to create new services. Indeed the Worldwide Web and Internet voice developed in much this way. Because the software itself can be distributed over the Internet and because the service is created as an application running on equipment -- PCs -- at the edge of the network outside the control of the carrier or other provider, the pace of change can be mind boggling. We truly are working on "Internet time."
What this means, it seems to me, is that access must be planned and implemented on the same schedule as general products. That is, these powerful new platforms must be designed, developed and fabricated at the outset to be accessible to -- and usable by -- individuals with disabilities. To do otherwise means that people with disabilities will become more isolated rather than empowered by these advances. It will mean that they will be forced backward rather than propelled forward by the potential of this technological revolution. The importance -- nay, the imperative -- of designing accessibility into telecommunications products and services leads to the second area I would like to address.
The Critical Role of Access Engineering and of the AAES
As I mentioned before, it is my understanding that your organization emerged from the work of the TAAC which recognized the need for a continuing resource for the industry on accessibility issues, especially in relation to addressing the requirements of Section 255 of the '96 Act. It is my further understanding that one of the key purposes of the AAES is to develop and nurture the field of access engineering. At the Commission, we see the development of access engineering as being important for two critical reasons.
First, as I just stated, we no longer have the luxury of considering accessibility issues after the product is designed, fabricated, and deployed. To use the slang terminology, it must be designed in at the "git-go." Viewed in this light, access engineering, relatively speaking, is still in its infancy. Like other disciplines in their infancy, professionals in the field must develop good engineering practices, find the means for exchanging information on best practices, find ways of informing themselves and their colleagues about developments in technology, regulations, public policy, business practices and resources useful in addressing access concerns -- all while mastering the "nuts and bolts" of the discipline. This is important, obviously, because the discipline provides the techniques by which accessibility will be taken into account at the design stage of product development. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the ultimate success of policies towards access expressed by the Congress in the '96 Act depend upon how well you and your colleagues in related fields develop this relatively new discipline.
There is some good news to go along with this effort. I believe it is being increasingly recognized that, in addition to benefiting persons with disabilities, accessibility holds the potential of benefiting everyone. Just as many non-disabled persons have benefited from the universal design principles captured in the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act, many non-disabled persons will benefit from accessible equipment and services. Early this year, I had the privilege of attending a week-long course on access engineering organized by Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden at the TRACE center at the University of Wisconsin. While I was generally aware of the notion that improving accessibility for persons with disabilities benefits us all, attendance at that course really drove home the point to me in terms of telecommunications and information products and services. I came away convinced that good access engineering is simply good engineering that can lead to better products and services for us all.
Parenthetically, I might add that I was interested to see an article relating to the universal design movement on the front page of the "Week in Review" section of last Sunday's New York Times. The article, in case you did not see it, focused on the aging of the baby-boom generation and how industries from automobile manufacturers to soft drink bottlers are developing a new generation of easier-to-use products for that population. It noted that even marketers love the notion of products being designed to be accessible to the widest possible range of people by taking all of their limitations and disabilities into account.
The wider acceptance of universal design principles does not mean that we can be complacent about ensuring accessibility to telecommunications services and equipment by persons with disabilities. But it does point to the prospect for increased acceptance of the importance of access to the competitive success of equipment and services in the market for telecommunications products and services more broadly.
The second reason that access engineering is so important is because of its key role in testing whether the principles and purposes of universal design can succeed without heavy and intrusive regulatory involvement. In surveys about the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the great majority of people, including corporate leaders, believe that it has had a positive effect on society by broadening the places that individuals and families can go, separately and together, by strengthening economic opportunities for all citizens, and by improving the bonds of community.
Section 255 will follow a similar course if it is perceived, as it should be, as generally opening communications opportunities without impeding the telecommunications revolution that has become such an exciting and important part of contemporary life. That is why access engineering is so important. On the one hand, by simply facilitating the development of accessible products and services, it will mean that we will be faced with fewer and less intrusive enforcement actions. On the other hand, some complaints about accessibility are inevitable. Indeed, complaints are a just and appropriate part of resolving problems and achieving the purposes of the law. They are necessary not only to protect consumers with disabilities, they are also necessary to protect ethical, law-abiding organizations from unfair competition from providers who do not fully embrace the principles set forth in Sections 255 and 251(a)(2) of the Act. Access engineering can help here as well because, when complaints are received, we will be in a better position to evaluate whether a provider of equipment or services is in compliance with our rules. We will be in a better position because, as the field of access engineering evolves, I would expect more clearly defined consensus practices to develop. Those practices, in turn, will enable us to more objectively judge whether or not it is readily achievable to make a particular product or service accessible. These consensus practices should also offer equipment and service providers a much better gauge of pre-market assurance of compliance.
Overall, the cost of complying with the Act and the cost of enforcement should be perceived as modest ones that clearly are justified by the benefits that result. This is the reason the objectives and work of your organization -- AAES -- are so important. Not only are you promoting access engineering with all of the benefits I have described, you are also facilitating voluntary compliance. You are promoting voluntary compliance by providing engineers and consumer representatives the opportunity to get together and to develop solutions in a relaxed environment without the pressures, distance, and defensiveness created by formal enforcement proceedings, lawyers, and budget reviews.
Summary and Conclusions
Let me conclude by saying that the Commission -- starting with the Chairman -- is committed to seeing that the Section 255 is implemented and enforced in such a manner that its original intentions are achieved. Clearly accessibility is the goal. But as I have tried to express here today, organizations such as the AAES have a vital role in ensuring that those goals are met. As telecommunications technology is designed, fabricated and deployed, accessibility must be an integral part of the process. In that way, as Chairman Kennard once said, people with disabilities will be included rather than isolated and empowered rather than marginalized.