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Telecomm Shopping for the Millennium

Telecomm Shopping for the Millennium

Regular readers know that I’m trying hard to keep up with all the technical developments related to hearing loss. For that reason I was gratified to see an ALDACON workshop entitled “Telecom Shopping for the Millennium”. Patti Bannier of Hamilton Relay did a great job of explaining many of the intricacies related to telephone systems and the relay.

The first part of Patti’s workshop described some of the available telephone features and how they relate to the relay. This topic will be discussed in Part 1 of this article. Part 2, which will be presented next week, will focus on more general relay topics.

The features discussed in Part 1 are offered by local telephone companies, who determine their pricing and availability. Please contact your local telephone company for the specifics of these features in your area.

Part 1

Caller ID

Caller ID allows a person receiving a phone call to know who is making the call. A box provided by the phone company displays the phone number of the person making the call and possibly the person’s name. However, on some occasions the number maybe the only information to appear which means you may need a solution such as, reverse phone lookup to discover who’s trying to contact you. The name is provided only if the caller ID box supports that feature and the incoming phone call contains that information. Caller ID costs between $5 and $15 per month.

While caller ID may be great for hearing customers, it doesn’t currently work very well with relay. The major problem is that the incoming call is identified as originating with the relay service rather than with the person who is using the relay provider to make a call. It is technically feasible to provide the number (and name) of the person originating the call. The availability of this capability (called True Caller ID) requires that it be specified in the contract between the state and the relay provider. Patti is unaware of any relay services that currently provide this feature.

Call Forwarding

Call Forwarding allows a phone company customer to forward his calls to another phone number. If a person is expecting an important phone call and will be away from his phone, he is able to redirect his phone calls to the number he will be at. Note that if the number to which he forwards his calls is a long distance call for him, he pays the long distance charges (for the forwarded call), not the person who originated the call. This feature costs between $3 and $10 a month, and works well with the relay service.

Three Way Calling

Three Way Calling allows a user to add an additional person to an existing phone call. This feature costs between $3 and $10 a month. It is possible to use this feature through the relay, but TTY etiquette is critically important for a successful call. And etiquette beyond what is customary for a two-person phone call is required. One obvious requirement is that a person identifies himself each time he types. The other parties to the call have no other way of knowing which person is “talking”.

A more difficult problem is that of turn taking. When one person finishes typing, both of the other participants might start typing at the same time, which would lead to TTY gibberish. To prevent this, some turn taking mechanism must be worked out at the beginning of the call. One possibility is turn rotation that remains fixed throughout the conversation. A is followed by B, who is followed by C, who is followed by A. Another possibility is for the person who is concluding her comment to indicate who should “talk” next.

Note that these issues are not specific to the relay, but rather related to the use of TTYs. The same problems occur if three TTY users are engaged in a 3-way call without the use of the relay.

Distinctive Ringing

Distinctive Ringing is a system that allows a single phone line to be accessed using multiple phone numbers. Each number has a distinctive ring. People sharing a phone would have unique numbers, and people would know whom the phone call is for by the ring pattern. This feature is becoming increasingly popular, and is particularly attractive for households that contain both TTY and voice phone users. It costs between $5 and $15 a month.

Toll Restrictions

Toll Restrictions provides the capability to block toll calls from a phone. The user can specify a general block, which blocks all toll calls, or she can allow calls to specified phone numbers. This feature is relay-compatible, but the user must be sure to tell her relay provider what her blocking policy is. (This step is required because the relay provider does not have access to the policy you establish with your local phone service.)

900/976 Blocks

900/976 Blocks allows a user to prevent calls to pay-per-call services. This feature works well with the relay, but the user must keep the relay provider informed regarding her policy. (See the Toll Restrictions comment regarding the reason for this requirement.)

Long Distance and Local “Freezes”

Long Distance and Local “Freezes” provide a mechanism for users to prevent either long distance or local slamming. (Slamming is the practice of changing your service provider – either long distance or local – without your consent.) These changes can be enacted by another provider who claims to have your authorization to do so. Applying the appropriate freeze prevents this possibility by preventing a service provider change unless the request comes from the user.

A telephone user must keep her relay provider informed of her choice of long distance provider. Only direct user request will cause a relay provider to change a user’s long distance provider. This prevents unauthorized provider changes with regard to the relay, but does require additional customer vigilance to keep the relay provider informed.

Optional Calling Plans

Optional Calling Plans allow a user to call a larger geographical area at the local call rate. The monthly fee depends on the size of the enhanced local call area. This is a good feature for people who place frequent calls outside their standard local calling area. This feature is relay-compatible, but the user must inform the relay provider of his calling plan in order to ensure appropriate billing.

Part 2

Selecting a Long Distance Company

The relay service for a particular state is generally affiliated with one of the major long distance providers. If a customer does not specify a long distance provider to be used for their calls, the relay’s default provider will be used. In this case, the cost of long distance service is in accordance with the contract between the state and the relay provider. Many contracts include a discount for long distance calls placed through the relay.

Note that a user may specify a different long distance company from that affiliated with the relay service. It is up to the individual user to compare the plan offered through the state’s relay contract with plans offered by other long distance companies. This is really an individual decision, because costs vary significantly depending on when calls are made, and the location of the person being called.

Once a user has selected a long distance company and plan, she should contact the company to establish the plan. She should identify herself as a relay user and request that relay calls and direct calls (without the use of the relay) be billed at the same rate. Finally, she should inform her relay provider of her long distance carrier of choice.

Note that you may also use a prepaid calling card through the relay. To do so, you simply provide the relay operator with the appropriate information to charge the call to the card. Some relay providers also support the use of the “10-10” services; most of those that don’t currently support this capability are working to add it.

Telecomm Accessories

Using the relay to access answering machines, voice mail, and voice menus offers special challenges. Because these accessories are timed for hearing users, there is generally not enough time for relay users to successfully access them. This situation can be (at least partially) alleviated by empowering the relay operator to make some decisions.

For example, a user may ask the operator to just inform him that an answering machine has picked up rather than type the entire message. (If the user doesn’t do this, the operator will type the entire message. Unfortunately, by the time she finishes, the answering machine may have hung up.)

Another example involves the use of voice menus. If the user tells the relay operator what he wants to accomplish, the relay operator can negotiate the voice menus to arrive at the appropriate location. If not, the operator will try to type all the menu choices, and the voice menu system will almost certainly time out before the user can make the appropriate selection.

Remember that the relay operator is required to type everything he hears, unless you give her other instructions.

711 Calling

The FCC recently issued a ruling that requires all states to provide 711 access to the relay by October 2001. This is wonderful news to people who use the relay, because they no longer need to determine unique relay numbers for the various states. But, issuing a ruling and implementing the required modifications are two different things.

The relay companies seem to be able to accommodate this change quite easily, but there may be difficulties with the local phone companies. The problem is that there are thousands of local phone companies throughout the country, and each of them must accommodate the new 711 access in each of their switches. Those companies with reasonably modern switches should have little difficulty. Those with older switches may have a harder time modifying the equipment to respond to the 711 number. In the worst scenario, phone companies may have to replace existing switches.

The fact that 711 relay access is already provided is several states is encouraging, but the national implementation may not take place without some problems.

2 Line VCO Charges

People who use 2 Line VCO know that it is expensive. A user is required to have two telephone lines, and one of them must provide 3 Way Calling or Conference Calling capability. It really doesn’t sound like equal access for those who choose that method of communication.

Well, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission agrees with that perspective; it has recently ruled that the additional charges (beyond basic telephone service) required to support 2 Line VCO will be paid by the Universal Service Fund rather than by the consumer.

The idea that 2 Line VCO should cost no more than standard telephone service seems to be spreading; hopefully, consumers in all states will soon be able to choose this communications option at no additional cost.