Who's on the Line: Access to Phone Systems at Work and at Home
I recently had an opportunity to try to explain VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology to a friend who is still trying to understand exactly what caller ID is. I did my best to tell her that all phone calls travel most of the distance from you to the other party as digital data and explained patiently that you can use the Internet to digitize your calls as you place them, rather than use the phone company. I then showed her the SIP (session initiated protocol) box that I have for my own VoIP line. After a long and uncomfortable silence, she asked, "Well then, which is it, a phone or a computer?"
Answering the question of what is a computer and what is still a telephone may be as good a place as any to begin to sort out the technical and accessibility challenges that are presented as voice communications technology moves from the familiar domain of "the phone company" to an almost endless array of services, such as Vonage and Skype, operating on an almost-limitless system of home networks, office systems, the open Internet, and specialized digital networks like MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) and cloud networks.
The Past aka Ma Bell
In the beginning, there was "the phone company," usually, but not always, part of AT&T. Regardless of ownership, the phone company controlled all aspects of placing and receiving a phone call--from the instrument on your desk or in your home to the switching equipment and long distance lines. Placing a call was relatively straightforward--lift the hand set; dial; and, in a few seconds, you were connected, all thanks to one or perhaps two phone companies, yours and the one at the other end of the call. For most of the 20th century, which generally spans the history of the development of the phone system, the call traveled as an electrical signal along a circuit created by the wires from your telephone to the telephone of the other party. This explains why calls across town were usually much clearer than those traveling long distances across country or internationally. This technology, known as circuit switching, also required that the call could travel only along dedicated wires owned by the telephone company.
From the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, a change quietly took place in the telephone system. Digital technology was introduced. At first, digital information was used to route calls. Rather than the physical opening and closing of mechanical switches to connect callers, digital techniques were used, increasing the speed and reliability of placing a call. This is the technology that made touchtone phones possible. The second part of this quiet change was the digitizing of voice conversations. Rather than traveling as analog electrical signals, conversations were encoded at the switch on your end of the call, traveled along the phone company's long distance lines as packets of data, and were decoded on the switch at the other end. For many of us of a certain age, comparing the quality of the long distance calls of yesteryear to those of today highlights the remarkable effect of digital technology. This is the method you will use the next time you pick up your "regular" phone and place a call from your home.
This Is the Internet Calling
Switched circuit systems require the digital packets containing the call to be routed along a specific set of lines, from you to the other party. A much newer technique, known as packet switching, allows the packets of data containing your conversation to travel across the Internet or other digital networks to reach the intended party. A useful analogy to help you understand the full implication of packet switching, is to the post office. Imagine that each packet of data representing a conversation is an envelope. The envelope contains an address, in this instance the location of the phone you are calling. When you mail an envelope, let's say from New York City to Chicago, you do not tell the post office, "Send the envelope by way of Indianapolis." The post office routes the envelope as it sees fit, since it can determine the most efficient route for the particular envelope to take. Similarly, packet switching allows packets containing conversations to move along the most efficient route available. In addition, the address on an envelope or packet contains a header with a description of the contents, let's say, "voice conversation." This header allows envelopes with different kinds of content to travel along the network and be sorted out in the correct sequence at the other end of the conversation. Last, the packet contains a sequence number, which ensures that the conversation is reassembled in the correct order at the other end of the call. The technology used for these processes also discards packets that arrive too late and mask the momentary dropouts in the conversation.
More than Just a Conversation
Since packets can contain information other than a simple conversation, it was inevitable that visual information would be encoded to travel from one caller to another. The most obvious example may be the caller ID. A visual display to show this important piece of information is found on virtually all phones that are sold today. Caller ID is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Many desk phones include a sizable screen. On this display, information, such as a corporate directory, can be shown. More significant is the use of this display to indicate the function of four identical "soft" buttons that sit across the bottom of the screen. The functions of these buttons change, depending on a number of variables. It is impossible to know what each label is unless you document or memorize the many possible permutations. This phone is connected to a Cisco phone system, which is typical of many similar systems in use in schools, offices, and other places of business. Because the packets that move across the system can include data, these visual elements of the system have been incorporated into its use, like it or not.
VoIP at Work
The Avaya Accessibility Strategy
Avaya is not a household name, unless you are in the telephone business. Formed as a spin-off of what was originally the hardware branch of AT&T, Avaya is a major player in the enterprise telecom arena. I recently had an opportunity to use the accessibility features of an Avaya Commuication Manager, a large business system. Because configuring a full business-phone setup was not a practical way to evaluate the performance of these systems in the AFB TECH lab, the following observations are based on a demonstration that took place in Washington, DC, in late January. Although not a perfect solution, the efforts of this company are impressive and demonstrate that accessibility is possible.
To understand how Avaya approaches accessibility, it is useful to recall that the packets of information that make up phone calls contain more than just voices. Two additional digital channels accompany the main voice channel for each call. The "media" stream and "control" stream handle separate yet related streams of packets that are required to conduct a call and use the phone. A switch or "telecommunications server," manages the flow of calls across the network, let's say of a medium to large business or institution. The server "looks" at the phones that are attached to it and routes the calls as they are placed and received. When a call is taking place, the server tracks certain of its characteristics. In addition, it continually monitors each telephone that is connected to it. For example, by looking at the phone, a sighted person can see whether any of the LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that indicate the use of one of the lines is lit. On the server, software keeps track of which of the line LEDs is lit, as well as many other functions.
Now, you are asking yourself, what is the big deal about software tracking whether a led is on or off, and what can that have to do with accessibility, since I cannot see the LED? The answer can be found in an elegant piece of software that Avaya makes available for all its systems. Universal Access Phone Status (UAPS) monitors the activity, actually 240 activities for any phone on a system, and announces changes as they happen or on request, depending on the customer's preferences.
To implement UAPS, a small software application needs to be downloaded and installed on a computer that is capable of communicating with the same server on which the phone system is running. In the typical business, the same network supports both computers and phones. Most commonly, the desktop PC near the phone hosts the UAPS software. Once the software is installed and activated, the user will hear the functions of the phone announced in a synthetic voice through the computer speaker, as you would hear a screen reader.
To begin the demonstration, I was invited to press the lower right hand-most button on a standard Avaya desk phone. The computer immediately announced "line 1 is available, line 2 is available, line 3 is available, and you have no messages." My host for the presentation then dialed my phone from another phone. "Line 1" was announced, followed by the regular ring tone. I was asked to press the same Announce button as before, only this time the caller ID information appearing on the screen was clearly announced with the name and number of the caller.
When several lines are in use in a busy office or for situations in which you are juggling calls among several lines, pressing the Announce key will summarize the status of your lines. During the demonstration, placing a call on hold or when a caller disconnected caused UAPS to announce the change immediately.
According to Avaya, there are 240 functions of the system, all of which can be announced by the software. Complex yet important information for users in special situations, such as customer service centers or offices that handle calls for a number of organizations, can also be announced. For example, an insurance call center that receives both sales and claims calls will display which kind of inbound call is being received, allowing the representative to answer appropriately after hearing the announcement. The corporate directory can be displayed on the phone's screen, and by pressing the Announce button, you will hear the current name and number spoken. To locate a number more efficiently, you can use the numbers corresponding to the first few letters of the last name. For example, if you entered 463, the letters Hod in Hodges would be looked up.
As the demonstration continued, it became clear that the Avaya approach is comprehensive and powerful. The steps that are necessary to conduct a conference call are announced, making this task manageable, especially compared to doing so without the benefit of accessible prompting.
The UAPS software, which provides accessibility, runs in the background on the PC that supports the application. It is important to note that it is not a soft phone and is intended to provide access to the conventional phone that the customer uses. Some computer keyboard hot keys can be specified if the user finds it convenient as an alternative to reaching for the phone. The software is completely compatible with screen readers, such as JAWS, Window-Eyes, and ZoomText. The configuration of the functions and their voice behaviors takes place using an HTML interface.
Despite Avaya's achievement of making the functions that take place on the telecommunications server accessible, changing settings on the phone itself is not accessible. Most notable for purposes of the demonstration was the inaccessibility of the menus to set ring tones and similar phone functions.
Avaya demonstrated UAPS on examples of phones that are of the more traditional variety. On these models, each line is represented by a separate button. A total of 24 buttons are arranged in two columns. These buttons are easy to feel and are placed conveniently to the right of the main keypad. The accessibility software allows specific accessibility functions to be associated with these buttons. The Announce command is given by pressing the lower right hand-most button, which has been assigned to this purpose.
The keypad is easy to identify with two clearly discernable nibs on the 5 key. Six keys, including Hold and Transfer, are arranged in two rows above the keypad. The oval shape and flat face of each key make them easy to locate.
Avaya also offers a less accessible phone that uses a large visual display and four soft keys as the primary interface. We understand that this design arrived in the United States from some German designers, and looking at it, it is hard to argue with the observation that it is Avaya's answer to the popular Cisco 7900 IP phone. This Avaya phone, like the 7900, is not accessible for even basic functions. The good news is that to compensate for the use of soft keys on this Avaya phone, the UAPS software allows all functions that are presented by the soft keys to also be accessible using commands that the user specifies on his or her computer keyboard.
The Best News
As the demonstration made clear, Avaya has taken much care and invested significant resources in the development of UAPS. To its credit, it has patented the technology as well and has participated actively in efforts to strengthen accessibility requirements for federal procurement. Perhaps the most innovative feature of the software is its price. Avaya gives UAPS away. Any Avaya IP-based phone system can operate a version of the accessibility package. Installing and configuring the software should be well within the skills of a network administrator.
The View from the Field
Tony Cooke works as a communication services manager for the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. Following the demonstration of the Avaya accessibility features, I talked with him about his experience deploying the UAPS for over 100 individuals in his agency.
Cooke spoke enthusiastically about UAPS. The installation is "a no-brainer," he said. "Once I memorized the IP address on the phone server, it became so easy. You just fill in the information about the phone extension, and the UAPS finishes the work for you." The software self-configures the features associated with the particular phone it is supporting.
Cooke reported that UAPS works well with screen readers: "Most people here are using JAWS, and I have never had a single problem in over 100 situations." The program also works well for advanced users who want to make their own adjustments in the behavior of UAPS.
An additional application that Cooke recommended for many who use low vision devices is the Avaya soft phone. "People using ZoomText like to bring up the large display of the soft phone on their monitor and look at the caller ID," he noted. In addition, UAPS offers a mode in which the caller ID is presented on the screen, but the preference is to use the soft phone and ZoomText.
In his experience, Cooke has found that users like to create PC keyboard shortcuts for a few of the most frequently used functions. Caller ID and a report of the status of all lines are available by pressing Control F8 and Control F9 for the systems that Cooke configures.
You May Have an Accessible System
Because Avaya is such a large company and provides phone systems for many governmental agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. House of Representatives, employees of these businesses and agencies may have accessibility within reach. Because it is not always a high-priority item for network administrators, you may want to check for yourself whether you are using an Avaya phone system. If you are, let your network administrator know or follow your organization's procedure to refer technical questions in order to request that the appropriate software be downloaded and installed at your workstation. Check to see if your telephone has a label that says either Avaya or Lucent. If it does, you may be able to have an accessible phone sooner than you thought possible.
When a Small Phone System Is All I Am Using
The demonstration of the Avaya UAPS was conducted on a large system, appropriate for organizations with 100 employees or more. Similar accessibility is available on the company's smaller systems, including IP Office. Avaya has partnered with SSB Bart Group to produce complete documentation for these systems in accessible formats.
The switch to a new office system can be a devastating event if the new phones are not accessible. According to Avaya, these small-business systems compete well with inaccessible brands. In addition, a tax credit of up to $5,000 may be available, since switching to an Avaya small office system provides accessibility.
VoIP at Home
AT&T Callvantage, Vonage, and Broad Voice
It hardly seams possible, but there are still people who do not know about VoIP alternatives to the regular phone company. These services can be broadly separated into two groups--those that use a specialized or SIP (session-initiated protocol) router to interface the conventional phones in your home to the Internet for placing and receiving calls, and those, such as Skype, that generally place and receive calls directly through your computer using a headset and/or a microphone.
The accessibility of VoIP systems, including AT&T's Callvantage and the industry leader Vonage, is excellent. When you access features from the hand set, such as retrieving voicemail, accessibility really is not much of an issue, since all users perform these functions using a recorded voice provided by the carrier.
The real advantage of these systems, for purposes of accessibility, is found in their web interfaces. Unlike a land-line carrier, a VoIP provider can offer dozens of features and options. In addition, there is an expectation that signing up for service and managing your account will all take place via the company's web site.
Several months ago, I decided to obtain a VoIP line as a second phone in my home. After I read a number of user reviews, I decided to become an AT&T Callvantage customer. If my experience is typical, I am pleased to report that the accessibility of the sign-up process and the Callvantage web site are good.
Using the Callvantage web site, I was able to sign up for new service without the intervention of a sighted helper. The process was involved, since gathering detailed information about your location and selecting a phone number involves a number of steps. I found that most edit fields were labeled properly. At several steps in the process, it was necessary to explore the screen carefully for the text that explained the step I was interacting with. Nevertheless, I was eventually able to press the Submit button and began to wonder if a router and the promised welcome kit would arrive.
Several days later, a box was delivered that promised to contain the router. Sure enough it did, and with a brief description of the labeling on the RJ-45 and RJ-11 connecters on the device, from a sighted person, I headed to the den to connect my new toy. Interacting with the web page, I followed the instructions and connected the gear. My first few attempts to place a call were not successful, but after about the third time, I lifted the receiver and was greeted by the welcome sound of a dial tone.
Now that I have had the service up and running for several months, I find that I occasionally use the web site to manage the service and review my bill. One of the most useful features is the call log. Information summarizing all calls is presented in table form. I can sort the view by received calls, placed calls, or all calls. The tables are well designed and labeled correctly.
Vonage is an alternative to Callvantage that several users of screen readers have enthusiastically embraced. In comparison to Callvantage, which offers about 8 advanced features, Vonage has created more than 25 customizable settings to modify the behavior of the technology to suit your precise needs. Users of the service uniformly report that adjusting these features is easy with both JAWS and Window-Eyes.
In addition to changing settings by way of the web site, you can configure settings directly from the phone by dialing a command sequence. After the sequence is entered, the system prompts you by voice. Users of both Vonage and another competitor, Broad Voice, report that more and more features are available in this manner.
To assess the usability of the web site for any VoIP service you are considering, it is useful to visit the respective web site and look around. In AFB TECH's experience, the overall accessibility and usability of the phone controls will reflect the general layout and structure of the web site.
The experiences and information that we have gathered over the past several months reflect our own experience. Additional information has been provided by Avaya, as well as the network administrator of an Avaya system. We welcome your comments and experiences. The fast pace of change in these technologies can mean that what was inaccessible only yesterday is accessible now or that web sites that were useful when this report was written will become inhospitable before you read it.
For more information about UAPS, contact Paul R. Michaelis, consulting member of the technical staff, Avaya Labs, phone: 303-538-4101; e-mail: email@example.com.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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