Order CRTC 2001-163
Ottawa, 26 February 2001
Access to Microcell's Fido-related service by persons who are blind
Reference: 8620-S49-02/00 - 8638-C12-49/01
The Commission directs Microcell Connexions Inc. to ensure that information on the rates, terms and conditions of the Fido-related service is made available, upon request, in alternative format to persons who are blind.
The Commission also directs all other Canadian carriers to show cause why they should not have a similar obligation to make available such information in relation to all their retail telecommunications services (wireless or wireline).
1. On 29 June 2000, Mr. Chris Stark filed an application, under Part VII of the CRTC Telecommunications Rules of Procedure, requesting that the Commission order Microcell Solutions Inc. (Solutions) to provide equitable service in the provision of its Fido line of wireless telephones to persons who are blind. Mr. Stark submitted that he encountered a number of access barriers which prevent him from fully utilizing the Fido-related service, and requested a number of Commission orders with respect to the provision of Fido services by Solutions.
2. Mr. Stark requested that the Commission require that Solutions:
- sufficiently train its staff to ensure that they can address the needs of customers who are blind;
- make its web site accessible to persons who are blind by conforming to the W3C Consortium World Web Site accessibility standards;
offer a wireless handset that is fully accessible to persons who are blind within six months by:
- requiring that the keypads on all its wireless handsets can be easily operated by touch and contain tactile orientation features (i.e., different shaped function keys with a raised pip on the number five, concave key shape and sufficient spacing between keys); and
- providing persons who are blind with the capability of knowing when they are on-line, when the call has been disconnected upon completion and how much time has been used;
- ask its dealers and distributors to provide information about Fido-related services and options for persons who are blind;
- make all Fido-related manuals, connection information and other publications available in alternative format in order that customers who are blind or have low visions could fully utilize the features and better manage costs;
- clarify its policies with respect to directory-assistance charges for persons who are blind because it is not clear whether Solutions exempts such charges for blind persons;
- make all Fido-related bills and related information available to customers who are blind in an alternative format of their choice, on the same basis, at the same time and under the same terms and conditions as printed bills are made available to sighted customers; and
- eliminate the requirement that customers who are blind obtain certification from a physician in order to receive billing information in alternative format. Mr. Stark argued that such a certification is discriminatory. He also requested that the letter and form, used for certification by the physician, should be available in electronic format.
Position of parties
3. On 31 July 2000, Microcell Telecommunications Inc. (Microcell) responded, on behalf of Solutions, to Mr. Stark's application. Mr. Stark filed reply comments on 3 August 2000. The Commission issued interrogatories, to which Microcell responded on 20 and 22 October 2000. Mr. Stark commented on Microcell's responses. Additional comments were received from Microcell and Mr. Stark, on 30 October 2000 and 31 October 2000, respectively.
4. Microcell stated that notwithstanding that Solutions is not a Canadian carrier, as defined in the Telecommunications Act (the Act) -- and therefore not directly subject to the Commission's outstanding orders -- it is nonetheless complying with both the letter and spirit of the standards established by the Commission.
5. Microcell also stated that, while Solutions serves its customers who are blind in an appropriate manner, it will implement a customer service program better designed to meet the needs of disabled customers and addressing many of the concerns raised by Mr. Stark. Enhanced access services will include:
- the availability of customer service staff to address various aspects of service for disabled customers, such as the provisioning of billing and other readily available information in alternative formats; and
- the ability to meet with sales staff and/or technicians at retail outlets to review various aspects of Fido service (e.g., choice of handsets, appropriate service plans) and assistance with programming handsets.
6. Microcell stated that while Solutions' staff is well trained, it will ensure that its training packages are modified to include information about services and options for persons who are blind. This information will be available at all of Solutions' 2,600 distributors.
Mr. Stark reiterated that he did not receive adequate service.
7. Microcell stated that since June 1999, Solutions has made billing information available in braille, large print or on computer diskette, has procedures in place to address such requests, and has provided these services to other customers in an apparently satisfactorily manner.
8. Microcell submitted that certification of blindness is necessary in order to prevent abuses. However, Microcell stated that Solutions will modify its existing policy and accept any other easily obtainable proof of blindness if submission of the requested form poses a problem for a customer. Microcell also stated that Solutions is prepared to provide the certification form on computer diskette or adopt other measures necessary to ensure that persons who are blind are aware of the process.
9. In reply comments, Mr. Stark argued that Microcell's medical certification requirement is unnecessarily stringent. He stated that other forms of proof of blindness (such as those used to qualify for reduced fare and free transportation) should be sufficient to prevent the types of abuses noted by Microcell.
10. Microcell stated that it provides certain information to blind customers, such as Fidomatic service brochures and any available manufacturers' user guides, in alternative format.
11. Microcell stated that Solutions is willing to provide, upon request, whatever information it can to accommodate blind and other disabled customers. However, Microcell stated that not all the information is readily available from its wireless handset suppliers. Only one handset manufacturer provides all of the alternative formats (mentioned above), one other can provide braille user guides in English only, and the remaining suppliers rely primarily upon electronic format to provide user documentation.
12. Mr. Stark reiterated that it is important that all Fido-related publications that describe the services and service options, are available in alternative format in order that customers who are blind can easily verify which handset-service package best meets their needs. He argued that Solutions could readily make available all publications, including the Fido-related manuals, in alternative format since the costs involved would be insignificant since Solutions could easily make a copy of the electronic version available to him before it is sent to the printer.
13. Mr. Stark stated that he was unable to use Solution's web site with his accessibility screen reader software.
14. Microcell stated that all the information contained in its web site is available to disabled customers either at the Fido point of sale or by telephone via Solutions' customer sales representatives or in many cases in alternative format through mailings.
15. Microcell also submitted that the provision of information over a web site does not constitute a telecommunications service under the Act, and therefore is not contemplated by section 27(2) of the Act.
16. Microcell stated that in 2001, Solutions will release a wireless portal which will provide advanced Internet-based services by enabling users to configure their web interface to receive personalized data through their handset.
17. Microcell submitted that since its web site and wireless portal were designed by using image and frame-based technologies (rather than simply text-based technology), compliance with the W3C standard would necessitate an entire rebuilding of these sites, and would entail substantial costs. Microcell submitted that web designers generally agree that achieving compliance with the W3C standard or any other similar standard must be taken into account at the outset of developing a web site and that it would be extremely difficult to transform an existing web site into a compliant one. Microcell submitted (in confidence) the costs involved in developing the web site and wireless portal, as well as estimates of the cost of making such sites compliant with the W3C or similar standard. Microcell also submitted that development of another distinct site solely for persons who are blind would involve similar development processes and incremental costs as re-building the existing site.
18. In reply comments, Mr. Stark argued that the web site service is broadcasting subject to the Broadcasting Act. He requested that the Commission order that Solutions not introduce its new web site and wireless portal until it is accessible by persons who are blind. While acknowledging that retrofitting an existing web site is an expensive way of achieving accessibility, he argued that Solutions should not be permitted to avoid these costs as a result of negligence in the original planning and construction.
19. Microcell submitted that all of the handsets marketed by Solutions feature a raised pip to identify the number five key for orientation purposes, and that many of the models have different shaped function keys. Also, Solutions offers technical assistance to all of its customers upon request to, among other things, increase familiarity with their handset models. However, handsets with greater spacing of buttons on the keypad are not available from suppliers since the current trend among manufacturers is to develop smaller, more compact units which facilitate portability.
20. Mr. Stark stated that the fundamental issue is not key size or the size of the phone, but rather the inclusion of capacity for visual and tactile operation in the development and design of handsets. He submitted that the Commission should require accessible cell phones with audio echo technology to be offered by 2002.
Handset screen prompts
21. Mr. Stark stated that since there is no dial tone, blind persons are unable to know with confidence whether a call is still connected, whereas sighted customers obtain such information from the handset screen. Since Mr. Stark is unable to read the information contained on the handset screen, he is unable to monitor the time of calls, and therefore cannot manage his usage costs in the same way as sighted customers.
22. Microcell stated that none of its handset suppliers have developed a model which would allow a customer who is blind the same degree of access to on-screen information as a sighted customer. Microcell also stated that, according to consultations with its leading handset manufacturer, there is currently no practical mechanism for translating information that appears on the handset screen into alternative format. Therefore, Microcell submitted that any difference in the level of service experienced by Mr. Stark is justified in light of current technological and marketplace realities, and that compliance with an order to provide the requested functionality would not be possible.
23. Microcell stated that, while much of the information provided on-screen would not constitute a telecommunications service under the Act, Solutions will nonetheless provide disabled customers with technical assistance to program as many of the features as possible into the handset.
24. Mr. Stark responded that audio echo technology exists which would make on-screen information, such as the monitoring and timing of calls, available to customers who are blind.
Connection and usage information
25. Regarding Mr. Stark's request that Solutions provide a way for blind customers to know when they are on-line and when the call has been disconnected (upon completion), Microcell stated that Mr. Stark's handset is equipped with an END key, which gives an auditory signal when pressed, is shaped differently from the other keys and is located at or near the top of the handset keypad. Pressing the END key will let the customer determine when the handset is on-line. A customer can also press the END key upon completion of a call to know that the call has, in fact, been disconnected. Furthermore, if the other party disconnects before the customer, the call is terminated and no further time usage is incurred by the Solutions' customer. Microcell stated that it has confirmed with handset manufacturers that the auditory signal of the END key is currently the only available method for blind customers to determine that the handset is on or off-line, but that improved notification methods will be forthcoming with synthetic speech technology.
26. With respect to usage information, Microcell submitted that customers such as Mr. Stark could opt to use Solutions' prepaid calling card service (Fidomatic) to monitor time usage by obtaining information in voice format. With Fidomatic, an interactive voice response (IVR) system is available to permit customers to inquire about their account balances, refill their account with a voucher or credit card and modify their Fidomatic access code. A Fidomatic customer can dial "*46" free of charge for direct access to the IVR main menu. In addition, if there are fewer than 15 days left before the account balance's expiration, customers will hear a message warning them of the impending expiration. If a Fidomatic customer's account balance is under five dollars, the customer will hear a message (at the beginning of the call) indicating the remaining account balance as well as the rate of the current call.
27. Mr. Stark stated that Microcell's proposed solution regarding the END key is not adequate, since he is unable to read the word "END" on the button. Further, he would like to know his phone function status at all times, similar to sighted customers who have access to information on the handset display.
28. Regarding usage issues, Mr. Stark submitted that he was unable to obtain a pamphlet on Solutions' prepaid Fidomatic IVR service in a format that he could read. Further, he submitted that, similar to sighted customers, he should be able to choose among the range of accessible services, and not have to make specific inquiries with respect to usage.
29. Mr. Stark stated that since Solutions has not submitted evidence that it has worked with manufacturers to solve this problem, the Commission should require it to file reports on its efforts to make handset screen information accessible, and that these reports be filed semi-annually until the Commission is satisfied that the access goal has been achieved.
30. Mr. Stark's application was based on his allegation that he encountered a number of access barriers to his being able to fully use and benefit from Solutions' telecommunications services. He claims that he does not have equal access to the telecommunications services offered by Solutions, as compared to the services received by customers with sight.
31. The Commission has examined Mr. Stark's allegations pursuant to its jurisdiction under sections 27(2) and 24 of the Act.
32. Section 27(2) of the Act provides that:
No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.
33. Pursuant to section 27(4) of the Act, the burden of establishing that any discrimination is not unjust, or any disadvantage is not undue or unreasonable is on the Canadian carrier.
34. According to section 24 of the Act:
The offering and provision of any telecommunications service by a Canadian carrier are subject to any conditions imposed by the Commission or included in a tariff approved by the Commission.
35. The Commission notes that Solutions resells the services of Microcell Connexions Inc. (Connexions) under the brand name Fido. Connexions and Solutions are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Microcell. Solutions is thus a reseller and not generally subject to the regulatory requirements in the Act (e.g., to file tariffs). Connexions is a Canadian carrier, subject to the Act. As a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), Connexions must provide the telecommunications services it offers, other than retail services to end-users, in accordance with a tariff approved by the Commission. While the Commission has forborne from regulating the retail telecommunications services provided by Connexions to end-users, the Commission continues to exercise its powers under sections 24 and 27(2) in respect of all of Connexions' services as a CLEC.
36. In response to an interrogatory, Microcell stated that if the Commission were to grant relief in this matter, it would be more appropriate to direct its order against Connexions.
37. Based on a careful review of all of the submissions filed on the record of the proceeding, the Commission has reached the conclusions set out below.
38. The Commission notes that Solutions is modifying its training packages to provide all of its 2,600 distributors with information on processing requests for information on the service options available to persons who are blind. Solutions will also provide an enhanced access service which, among other things, will enable persons who are blind to meet with sales staff and technicians at retail outlets to review various aspects of Fido service. The Commission considers that Microcell has adequately responded to the concerns raised by Mr. Stark (e.g., assistance in choosing an appropriate handset and service plan, assistance with programming handsets, explanation of services available to persons who are blind) and finds that no further action in this regard is warranted at this time.
39. The Commission considers that customers and potential customers (customers) require sufficient information about a service in order to be able to compare services available in the market and to make an informed choice. In this regard, it is of fundamental importance that customers have access to information about the rates, terms and conditions of a service, which may change. The Commission agrees with the position of Mr. Stark that customers who are blind are at a disadvantage as compared to other customers by not being able to obtain, in a format that meets their needs, the rates, terms and conditions of the service. The Commission finds that the disadvantage is undue, contrary to section 27(2) of the Act. Therefore, the Commission considers that Connexions should be required to ensure that, upon request, within a reasonable period of time and in the alternative format (i.e., braille, large print, computer diskette) requested by a person who is blind, information be made available setting out the rates, terms and conditions of the service.
Billing information and directory assistance
40. The Commission notes that Microcell confirmed that since June 1999 Solutions has provided billing and related information in alternative format (i.e., braille, large print, computer diskette) in a manner that is consistent with Telecom Orders CRTC 96-1191, dated 29 October 1996, and 98-626, dated 26 June 1998. On the record of this proceeding, Microcell stated that Solutions committed to modify its certification of blindness process and accept any easily obtainable proof of visual-impairment. Microcell also stated that Solutions will provide the certification form in alternative format. Microcell also confirmed that persons who are blind can be exempted from directory assistance charges by calling customer service.
41. The Commission considers it reasonable to require some form of proof of blindness in order to prevent abuse. The Commission finds that the steps taken by Solutions in this proceeding address in a reasonable manner the concerns of Mr. Stark with regard to this issue and considers that no further action in this regard is warranted at this time.
42. The Commission notes that Solutions provides certain Fido service brochures in alternative format. The Commission notes that the handset operations manual is produced by the handset supplier, and not by Solutions (or Microcell). On the record of this proceeding, Microcell indicated that, based on its research, at least two of Solutions' suppliers make the manual available in braille and that the remaining suppliers rely primarily upon electronic format to provide user documentation. The Commission notes that Mr. Stark sought the documentation in electronic format. Solutions stated that where it is available, Solutions will provide the operations manual in alternative format upon request to customers who are blind. In addition, Solutions is implementing an enhanced access service which will offer to customers who are blind personal assistance to program as many of the features as possible into the handset.
43. In light of the foregoing, the Commission is satisfied that Solutions has taken reasonable steps to address Mr. Stark's concerns, in the circumstances of the current marketplace. However, the Commission encourages Solutions to work with its other suppliers to make available operations manuals in alternative formats.
44. Microcell indicated that all the information currently available on Solutions' web site is available to persons who are blind at the Fido retail outlets and by telephone via Solutions' customer sales representatives. In addition, payment of monthly invoices can also be made over the phone.
45. Microcell stated that for competitive and marketing reasons, its new web site and planned wireless portal were developed principally using images and frames, rather than, for example, a text-based approach. Accordingly, a complete rebuild of the entire website and wireless portal would be required. The Commission agrees with the submission of Microcell that there would be substantial costs and technical difficulties involved in making its web site and wireless portal comply with the W3C accessibility standard. The Commission notes Microcell's statements that it is seeking to further accessibility over the long-term by supporting, wherever possible, the incorporation of accessibility specifications in the development stages of new products and services by manufacturers. For example, Microcell noted that the industry is in the early stages of exploring the feasibility of voice portals for potential integration with other portals. This would enable content, such as stock quotes, news and weather headlines, to be read.
46. In light of all of the above, and in particular, the rapid pace of technological innovation and the fact that the service information available over the web site can be obtained at Fido points of sale or over the phone, the Commission does not consider it appropriate to require that any further action be taken at this time.
Keypad and handset screen prompts
47. The Commission notes that all of the handsets marketed by Solutions contain a raised pip to identify the number five key (located at the center of the keypad), and that many of the handsets contain differently shaped function keys that can facilitate orientation for a person who is blind. Also, Solutions provides technical assistance to persons who are blind, either over the phone or at Fido sale locations.
48. The Commission considers that the concerns raised by Mr. Stark with respect to key orientation have been adequately addressed.
49. Regarding Mr. Stark's concerns with respect to key spacing, the Commission notes Microcell's submission that Solutions would not be able to comply with such an order since none of the manufacturers that supply it offers a handset with widely spaced keys. The Commission also notes that, in reply comments, Mr. Stark revised his position and stated that the issue is not one of key size or size of the phone, but rather that wireless phones should be required to have audio echo technology so that the function key and screen information would be readily available to persons who are blind.
50. According to Microcell's submissions, handset suppliers have not developed a model that is capable of translating the digital data that appear on the handset screen into voice prompts. However, Solutions will provide disabled customers with technical assistance to program as many of the features of the handset as possible.
51. Given the current state of handset technology that is widely and practicably available, the Commission considers that it would be unreasonable to require Microcell to offer handsets that the company submits are not available in the marketplace. In the circumstances, the Commission considers that no further action is warranted at this time. However, the Commission encourages Microcell to work with manufacturers to develop handsets that would be accessible by persons who are blind.
Connection and usage
52. The Commission is satisfied that there are a number of adequate ways, such as using the END key, in which a person who is blind can determine when the handset is on-line and when the call has been terminated, and considers that the remaining issue is whether or not customers who are blind can adequately monitor time usage.
53. The Commission accepts Microcell's submission that current technology for handset and network design limits the extent to which alternative methods, such as voice prompts, could be used to enable customers who are blind to monitor the duration of calls and time usage.
54. The Commission notes that customers who seek to be able to monitor time usage through voice prompts may do so by obtaining the prepaid Fidomatic service with interactive voice response for account management and other features, such as voice messages providing advance warning of account expiration and low account balances. The Commission recognizes that the per-minute rates for this type of service are higher than the rates for the postpaid monthly service; however, the higher rate reflects the specific features of the Fidomatic service.
55. In light of the foregoing, the Commission considers that no further orders are warranted at this time.
56. In light of the above, the Commission grants the relief sought by Mr. Stark in relation to the provision of service information in alternative format. Accordingly, pursuant to section 24 of the Act, the Commission directs that, as a condition of offering and providing service to a customer who resells the service to end-users under the brand name Fido, Connexions must ensure that its customer (e.g., Solutions) makes available upon request and within a reasonable period of time, information in the alternative format (i.e., braille, large print, computer diskette) requested by a person who is blind, setting out the rates, terms and conditions of service. Connexions is directed to include in its applicable CLEC tariffs and/or agreements with Solutions a condition requiring that the Fido service provider ensure that it makes available upon request and within a reasonable period of time, in the alternative format requested by a person who is blind, information setting out the rates, terms and conditions.
Show cause proceeding
57. The Commission directs all Canadian carriers to show cause within 45 days of this order why the Commission should not impose, as a condition of the offering and provision of any telecommunications service to an end-user or to an affiliate that resells the carrier's service to an end-user, the requirement that the carrier shall make available, or ensure that the reseller make available, upon request, within a reasonable period of time and in the alternative format (i.e., braille, large print, computer diskette) requested by a person who is blind, information setting out the rates, terms and conditions of the service.
This document is available in alternative format upon request and may also be examined at the following Internet site: www.crtc.gc.ca
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