Just the other day, in a new filing with the FCC, AT&T had complained about not getting a waiver from the agency’s regulation which stipulates that all voice calling services must support teletypewriter (TTY). For the uninitiated, TTY is an accessibility feature aimed at helping the audibly challenged communicate over a regular phone call by typing their message on the phone keyboard and have that message relayed through to the caller at the other end of the line in real time. AT&T had contended that it was unable to launch its Wi-Fi calling service to compete on even terms with its rivals Sprint and T-Mobile in the absence of a waiver from the regulator. In a separate filing, AT&T had also contended that the regulator do away with what the carrier believes to be an outdated and antiquated accessibility feature in the first place, in favor of Real Time Text (RTT) as a modern alternative accessibility solution for the audibly challenged. The carrier said it wanted only a temporary waiver till it was ready to start offering RTT next year onwards.
According to reports doing the rounds today, the FCC has now granted a waiver to AT&T from the TTY requirements, although, the waiver is a temporary one and is set to expire on December 31st, 2017 at the latest. The wording on the statement released by the FCC makes it amply clear that the validity of the waiver might actually end even earlier, provided the federal agency can come up with guidelines regarding suitable alternative accessibility solutions. AT&T, in its filing with the FCC earlier in the week, had complained about Sprint and T-Mobile allegedly violating the agency’s regulations regarding the need for all carriers to support TTY on their networks. The company itself had applied for the waiver as far back as in June this year, and said that it wasn’t able to compete with the two other aforementioned networks in the absence of the regulator acting decisively sooner rather than later.
While the FCC has now granted interim relief to AT&T through its new order, the regulator did note that the requirements of users need to be addressed irrespective. According to the FCC, “We have concerns about ensuring the availability of essential connectivity for such consumers. Of particular concern is the extent to which consumers with communications disabilities will be able to access 911 service during the waiver period”. The regulator however, accepted that there are technological barriers preventing reliable and effective implementation of TTY over IP-based services, which is one of the main reasons why the commission has now granted the waiver to AT&T. In its order, the FCC noted, “Notwithstanding these concerns, due to the acknowledged limitations of TTY technology and the limited use of wireless networks by TTY users, we expect that the waiver’s impact on the inability of consumers with communications disabilities to access 911 services over IP-based wireless services with their TTYs will be insignificant”. The FCC also seemingly called on companies like Sprint and T-Mobile to go through the official process and apply for a waiver from the TTY requirements for their respective Wi-Fi calling services, saying, “comparable waivers may be granted to other similarly situated applicants that meet the necessary criteria for waiver relief and commit to complying with the conditions stated herein.”
Having gotten a positive reply from the FCC, AT&T sounded vindicated and expressed satisfaction, but maintained that the FCC now needs to bring Sprint and T-Mobile to book for flouting its regulations. Mr. Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, issued a statement saying, “We’re grateful the FCC has granted AT&T’s waiver request so we can begin providing Wi-Fi calling. At the same time we are left scratching our heads as to why the FCC still seems intent on excusing the behavior of T-Mobile and Sprint, who have been offering these services without a waiver for quite some time,” he added. “Instead of initiating enforcement action against them, or at least opening an investigation, the agency has effectively invited them to now apply for similar waivers and implied that their prior flaunting of FCC rules will be ignored. This is exactly what we meant when our letter spoke of concerns about asymmetric regulation”.