CRTC urged to mandate better supports for Deaf Canadians during phone service outages

By Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

When a major telecommunications outage left more than 12 million users without wireless service in July 2022, the disruption was far more dire for the many Canadians dependent on accessibility apps.

That day, Rogers Communications Inc. customers spent hours unable to use their mobile devices for calling, texting or browsing the web unless they were able to find a Wi-Fi connection.

But for those like Kimberly Wood, who is Deaf, it meant any form of communication was practically impossible.

That included finding out about the outage at all.

As Canada’s telecommunications regulator seeks to improve transparency and reporting requirements surrounding major network outages, members of the Deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind community are urging the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to take their needs into account so that situation doesn’t repeat.

“There are certain services that if disrupted would affect everyone — both hearing and Deaf. For example, an outage affecting landline or mobile services would affect everyone,” said Wood, founder and chair of the Canada Deaf Grassroots Movement, by email.

“On the other hand, there are certain services specifically designed to facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing consumers, such as Video Relay Service, Message Relay Service and text with 911.”

Those specialized apps are reliant not only on cellular service, but proper preparation by the users themselves.

For example, a hearing customer may be able to borrow someone else’s phone with a different carrier during an outage, said Wood. But for Deaf consumers, communicating by phone in such situations would only be possible if someone they know has already downloaded an accessibility program to their device.

Wood said text service through 911 also requires pre-registration with a telecom’s technical support, which usually takes about two business days to complete.

“Immediate access to 911 on someone else’s mobile phone would not be possible during an outage,” she said.

In March, the CRTC launched a consultation with the goal of developing a framework to improve the reliability and resiliency of telecommunications networks.

Noting that service outages caused by extreme weather, cyberattacks and accidents have been on the rise, the regulator invited comments on a proposal requiring Canadian mobile carriers to notify the CRTC, federal government and other relevant authorities when they experience outages. The approach would also force telecom companies to submit a post-outage report to the commission.

Tackling the issue through a disability lens could help the regulator ensure those with hearing loss aren’t put in danger when outages happen, according to Wood.

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Her organization’s submission to CRTC’s consultation stressed that in any outage, “Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind are most vulnerable when they are unable to communicate with anyone. This can be compounded by a state of emergency where life is at risk.”

“While it can be disconcerting for hearing people to be cut off during an outage, they are still able to gather information through unfettered verbal interactions from various sources including the radio,” Wood wrote.

“This option is not normally available to those with hearing loss. As a result of this disparity, the DHHDB community experiences more distress than normal during an outage.”

The group urged the commission to establish a website to provide information about major service outages across the country, which would include video access in both American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language. It recommended the website’s written component, as well as post-incident reporting, be done in plain language — defined by meeting a Grade 3 level of comprehension.

Wood said this would allow Deaf consumers to be aware of the type, nature and expected duration of an outage so they can make alternative arrangements to place and receive phone calls, including reaching 911 in an emergency.

“This ‘one-stop’ place would keep all Deaf consumers apprised of any outages,” she wrote. “This one stop website would prevent miscommunication or misrepresentation amongst Deaf consumers regarding the nature, severity and duration of such outages.”

The consultation, which closed for feedback submissions via sign language earlier this month, remains ongoing as the CRTC reviews the comments it’s received. Asked about the calls to increase accessibility, the regulator declined to comment on any interventions submitted or potential actions.

During the 2022 Rogers outage, Wood noted how people flocked to popular Wi-Fi hot spots such as cafés, fast-food restaurants and public libraries to connect to the internet.

While hearing consumers may have been able to connect to send a quick text, Deaf consumers’ use of specialized services and popular video conferencing apps require lots of bandwidth — something Wood said was adversely affected by a crowd of people also using the same hot spot.

She added that public service announcements were not made available in sign language formats and some Deaf people missed critical information shared throughout the day.

In a statement, the Canadian Telecommunications Association said it values input from organizations representing persons with disabilities, including through the CRTC’s consultation.

Spokesman Nick Kyonka said the association and the carriers it represents “have worked alongside various organizations on joint initiatives to help identify barriers to accessibility and better address the needs of persons with disabilities.”

“As an industry, we are committed to communicating effectively with all Canadians and will follow the regulations determined by the commission,” he said.

Meanwhile, a separate submission to the CRTC from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Coalition — a group formed by Deafness Advocacy Association Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf and Ontario Association of the Deaf — raised concerns surrounding the willingness of most big telecoms to act on the issue.

“Generally speaking and with the notable exception of Telus, the carriers’ interventions made passing comments at best when it came to notifying and reporting on major service outage mainly or directly affecting (Deaf and hard of hearing) consumers,” the filing stated.

Both Wood’s group and the coalition said they were unaware of any progress by telecoms to rectify the issues they raised.

“(We) fear that these gaps would persist if a similar outage were to occur tomorrow,” said Wood.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2023.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

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