Regulating VoIP for Accessibility

A decade after the Internet skyrocketed from obscure technology to household word, voice over Internet Protocol is following the same trajectory. Unlike the unprecedented and nearly regulation-free Internet, however, VoIP is a direct substitution for an existing and very heavily regulated technology: telephony.

VoIP allows phone conversations to traverse the Internet or private corporate data networks, avoiding the traditional phone network and its toll charges. VoIP (or, more broadly, IP telephony, which incorporates VoIP and adds many enhanced software-based, business-grade telephony features) is creating new business models -- for instance, providing unprecedented mobility to salespeople and enabling call center agents to work from their homes with PC-based phones.

The Federal Communications Commission, which is working to determine what point on the regulatory spectrum VoIP should occupy, is looking closely at important items such as the technology's accessibility to people with disabilities. While the Internet's success suggests that a hands-off approach would be best to maintain VoIP's growth, there are critical aspects of telephony regulation -- those protecting citizens, and disabled persons in particular -- that are too important to ignore.

To its credit, the FCC has been consistent in expressing concerns that VoIP be accessible to people with disabilities. The commission's Internet Policy Working Group held a "Solutions Summit" on May 7 to hear from members of the disabilities community and industry regarding how such accessibility can be provided as the use of VoIP spreads.

Regulators have thus far sensibly demonstrated what is described as "a light touch" out of concern that heavy regulation could impede VoIP's development and its benefits for businesses and consumers. The need to ensure accessibility, however, is acute in the workplace. Unemployment rates among segments of the disabilities community are very high, ranging from 20% to 70%, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and advocacy groups.

It's clear that the marketplace alone can't be counted on to kick-start development of technologies required to provide equal access to all. Although people with disabilities make up a large and growing segment of our population, their buying power isn't strong enough to provide the economic incentive needed for industry to devote resources toward the development of user-friendly features that help people with disabilities participate more fully in economic life.

The standards for accessibility in VoIP should be extrapolated from today's telecommunications regulations, which reside in several federal acts, including the Telecommunications Act of 1996. These regulations require telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to ensure that their systems are accessible to people with disabilities and also require organizations to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees and customers with disabilities.

Technology standards, too, should preserve progress (in techspeak, they should be "backward-compatible"). Accessible equipment and services have been available for decades. For instance, some devices present conversations as text on TTY or TDD text terminals for people who have hearing impairments. Millions of these terminals have been produced since 1963. Their users should be able to retain these familiar devices and connect to VoIP through gateways.

If the richness of IP telephony is exploited properly, however, wonderful things can be achieved for people with disabilities. Consider, for example, the tremendous amount of information that's presented visually by a typical business telephone -- Caller ID, which lines are available, which are in use, whether the phone is forwarded, whether there is new voice mail, whether someone on hold has disconnected and so on. In a traditional telephony system, it's a tremendous challenge to provide this information to people who are blind, typically requiring hardware adjuncts that cost considerably more than the phone itself.

However, by taking advantage of the capabilities that are inherent in IP telephones, it's possible to address this accessibility problem, and many others, with inexpensive software-only solutions. My company already offers a free software adjunct for Avaya IP telephones called Universal Access Phone Status, which provides -- by voice output -- all of the telephony information that's presented visually to sighted users. These types of features help solve accessibility problems, and the industry as a whole needs to focus on delivering innovative solutions in this area.

For many enterprises, the biggest obstacle to providing equivalent facilitation to the disabled in a VoIP environment won't be technology or regulation; it will be education. Enterprises and their network managers need to understand what accessibility features are included in their systems and how to activate them. Even today, many businesses and government agencies haven't activated their accessibility features.

They need to understand, too, the 49 million reasons for activating the features: That's the number of Americans with disabilities, who all have the right to communicate, the right to work and the right to purchase goods and services.

Donald K. Peterson is chairman and CEO of Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya Inc.

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