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Cell Phones Get Smart – and More Accessible


By Judy Harkins and Cary Barbin
Technology Access Program
Gallaudet University

May 2002


Cell phones and pagers have become part of the fabric of American life.  The wireless telecommunications industry is betting that we are going to stay hooked on mobile communications.  They are investing in improving their networks to give us better coverage, more text, more web, and even, in the future, video on the go.  Another article in this issue of Silent News talks about pagers.  This article focuses on wireless/cellular phones and new text services, and wireless phone/TTY compatibility.

Phones become visual

A current trend is merging of the mobile telephone with pager-like functions such as short messages, e-mail, web access, and (we hope) wireless video.  The wireless telephone service providers are rolling out new services based on “always on” Internet, made possible by General Packet Radio Service, or GPRS.  GPRS is sometimes called 2.5G (G for generation) a step toward high-speed mobile wireless services, or 3G.

Merging voice and data means hybrid devices that can function well for both purposes.   Some, like the Motorola V100, look like a pager with a headset.  The familiar Blackberry


Image of BlackBerry 5810.


will similarly grow “ears” as it begins to support voice communications as well as data.  Other approaches, like the Ericsson Chatboard are clip-on keyboard accessories for the phone.  The numeric keypad can be used to generate text, too (if your service provider supports “T9” technology, one keypress per letter will be enough) but new keypads are under development with the goal of giving higher typing speed without increasing the size of the device.  The Treo, by palmOne looks like a whole new animal, a phone that has a built-in keyboard.  So does the Nokia 9290, a phone that you open like a book to reveal a color screen and keyboard, due out this summer in the U.S.

Image of Treo Handspring.


The GPRS data services in cell phone networks operate separately from the voice services, but so far it appears that all service providers are requiring that you have a voice subscription in order to get the data services – at an additional charge.    Service plans change frequently, though, and this information can become outdated before the print dries on the Silent News.  Some plans charge by the short message, so although you can do IM-style chat, you may find it pricey for long conversations.


Web access from the phone might seem “nice to have” and not essential – until you think of the potential for using the web browser for IP relay calls and web chat.  Although IP relay is not (as of this writing) a reimbursable TRS service under FCC rules, the FCC is studying the situation and this could change any day.


Mobile e-mail will remain important, since there is the persistent problem of incompatibilities among the various short- or instant-messaging technologies.  We hope to see the industry make new standardization agreements to solve this problem.


What about TTY?

One of the shortcomings of mobile services for deaf people compared to hearing people is that deaf people currently can’t summon 9-1-1 services through a mobile device.  This still requires a phone call.  9-1-1 services do not accept e-mail or short messages.  Yet cell phone use in emergencies has grown to the point where most 9-1-1 calls come from cell phones.

Cell phones used to work well with TTYs, but as technology changed over from analog to digital, the industry did not accommodate TTYs and problems began to arise.

Since 1997, the industry has been working on the problem, under FCC requirements.  The FCC issued an order in 1996 on wireless phone access to 9-1-1, and said that TTY users must be able to call 9-1-1 on a cell phone.  The deadline for making cell phones and TTYs compatible has been extended several times, and the final deadline is June 30 of this year.

Implementation has taken a long time because it has been difficult.  The software in the wireless network as well as in handsets had to be developed, standardized and tested.    There are four groups who are responsible for making the usage of TTYs with wireless handsets possible.  The first group is the wireless network vendors who provide the network system across the country.  Examples are Lucent, Ericsson, Motorola, and



Close-up image of Motorola V60t Menu.  Menu shows TTY Setup, and options of Voice or TTY.     Motorola V60t Menu


Nortel.  The second group is the handset manufacturers such as Panasonic, Sony-Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, and Kyocera.  The third group is wireless service providers who provide the connection between the handset and network system.  They are the ones that the customers pay their monthly bills to.  The major providers are Cingular, Sprint PCS, AT&T Wireless, Verizon, VoiceStream, AllTel, Nextel, and Qwest Wireless.  The fourth group is the TTY manufacturers who modify their TTYs so they can work with the handsets.  Ultratec and Ameriphone in particular have been actively working with the wireless industry.  As you see, it’s been a very large project, as it required a lot of effort by each group to work with the other groups.  Different manufacturers of network equipment and handsets had to test with each other to make sure the TTY messages would be clear.  If one of them did not do their part, we would not be able to use TTY with wireless handsets.

The wireless industry has been testing their handsets using testing software developed at Gallaudet for this purpose.  They have been testing with 3 different TTYs that can serve as mobile TTYs:  Ultratec’s Compact/C, Ameriphone’s Q90, and a new TTY recently imported to the U.S., TextLink.  TTY manufacturers have had to adjust their products to meet the cell phone industry part-way.  Connection to the cell phone will be through an audio jack, so TTY manufacturers have added audio jacks to some TTYs.  A cable will need to be acquired, usually from the TTY manufacturer or other distributor.  One disappointment is that Turbocode and HiSpeed will need to be disabled on the Compact/C and Q90 TTYs otherwise you may get very garbled messages on your TTY.  The wireless industry was not willing to engineer for many different codes, and objected to accommodating TTY technologies that were not in “open” standards (i.e., owned by one company). 


Image of an Ultratec Compact-C TTY with a Motorola V60t wireless handset.

Compact with Motorola V60t

Service providers are now testing some of the handsets with their networks.  As problems arise, they are being addressed.  However, it is possible that things will not work perfectly on July 1 for every handset, every service provider, and every method of TTY use.  VCO for example, seems to work much worse on wireless than on landline networks.  Some handsets will be easier to use than others.

One problem, ironically, is that the cell phone industry is getting occasional bad results on test calls to 9-1-1 TTY equipment.  It is not clear why this is happening, but calls to 9-1-1 are getting worse results than calls to regular consumer TTYs.  This is one problem that will need to be addressed, probably after the deadline.  Note that 9-1-1 calls can be made from any TTY enabled handset even if it is not in service, under FCC rules.

We have made recommendations to industry that handsets be able to handle TTY internally, using the device’s own display and keyboard – not requiring an external TTY.  Using the hybrid types of devices described above, with good displays and keyboards, this could become an ultimate all-in-one solution for deaf people without having to carry around several devices.  Unfortunately, no manufacturer has so far indicated plans to do this.


Eventually, all handsets should become TTY compatible, but at first, not all will be.  It is not yet clear how the industry will inform the deaf community of this.  If you do not see information about TTY on the phone packaging or website of the manufacturer, ask a salesperson to show you the user’s manual. 


Looking into the future

Last March the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association (CTIA) had an Expo Show in Orlando that showed some promising technologies being developed.  One product that really stood out at the CTIA show, and that would benefit the deaf community, is NTT DoCoMo’s FOMA series. 

Image of the FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access) handset.  It resembles a flip phone, but the top portion is a video display.

FOMA is an acronym for Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access.  They are developing a handset (FOMA P2101V) with a built-in video camera that can do two-way video calls.  Getting the device is not enough to make it possible to have signed phone calls, though; the U.S. network will have to support higher speeds than it does now, and so it will be a few years before they arrive in the U.S.  Maybe we should all take a trip to Japan to try them out!

This article first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Silent News.

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