Computer Modems (including digital adapters)


Modems, as devices that can either initiate or terminate telecommunications, are clearly CPE.  However, the interface to a modem is often not the hardware itself (although external modems usually have status indicator lights) but software.  Some of this software is usually resident in the modem as firmware.  The rest is either bundled with the modem by the modem manufacturer, or provided by a third party, such as a computer manufacturer or operating system or software company.  In fact, internal modems and PCMCIA card modems have no hardware user interface at all.  Their controls and current conditions are only available through the computer’s display.

How exactly to address the issue of modems within the context of Section 255 may be even more complex than this.  No modems have a means whereby a user can enter a telephone number and initiate a call directly.  It is the host computer that controls the timing and destination of an outbound call.  However, modems can independently terminate a call: when set to answer, it is the modem itself that detects ringing, answers the call if it is configured to do so, establishes a data connection, and informs the host computer that a data call has been received.  To place a modem call, both operating system features and modem control software in the host computer are needed.  (Examples of the latter are “Dial-Up Networking” in Windows and “MacPPP” for the Macintosh.)

A modem connection is never an end in itself.  Users make modem connections in order to access the Internet or other online services, or to perform a function by emulating some other equipment such as a standalone fax machine, videotelephone, or voice telephone.  This fact may bring into access considerations other applications that by themselves may not be considered telecommunications.  For example, browsers and email client software can be set to initiate a call automatically, upon launch, or upon a given user action.  If they themselves initiate the telecommunications call through the modem, they may be covered by Section 255.

For the purposes of this Report, we are considering all these elements inclusively.  This has no bearing on whether any or all of these functions will be ruled to be covered by Section 255, as this is beyond the scope of this Report.  Our point here is to portray the computer user interface of a telecommunications function as being entirely composed of the interactions among modem hardware and firmware, modem control host software, operating system features, and application software.  Successful telecommunications requires that they all interoperate effectively; this is especially true for access considerations in which assistive technology is used.  Consumer selection of these elements, individually and collectively, is possible, but somewhat limited in choice and requiring technical sophistication.

Note: the list below assumes that the PC is acting as the intermediate interface for the modem.

Guidelines Addressed Generically

1193.41(d) Operable without hearing.

1193.41(f) Operable with limited reach and strength – controlled by keyboard or keyboard emulator

1193.41(h) Operable without speech (except as voice modem)

1193.43(e) Availability of auditory information for people who are hard of hearing – through adjustment of the computer’s audio output volume

1193.43(f) Prevention of visually-induced seizures.

1193.43(g) Availability of audio cutoff – usually through computer’s sound connections

1193.43(h) Non-interference with hearing technologies.  Note: some computers and computer monitors (not modems) may interfere with some hearing aids.

1193.51(b) Connection for external audio.

1193.51(c) Compatibility with prosthetics.

PCMCIA card modems used with laptop computers are inserted and removed often enough to deserve a comment on their ease of use.  These cards are small and rectangular with few clues about orientation.  They are inserted into slots without user access to the slot connector itself.  They either need to be connected to another device (“dongle”) that connects to the phone line, or the card itself contains a flush-mounted line connector (“X-jack”).  These small parts, fine tolerances, and subtle orientation requirements may pose a problem for people with manipulation or visual impairments.

Fax modems

Many modems can send documents from the machine as faxes and receive faxes from any other fax machine or fax-modem equipped computer.  The software for this function is either a separate application or is a function within another application, such as a word processing program.

The disability-related advantages of using a fax modem are:

The UCPA study found that the majority of respondents who used fax used a computer to control that function (Simpson/UCPA, 1997).

Voice modems

Many modems sold today have a voice capability.  Most PCs are equipped with sound cards capable of handling the audio of telephone conversations.  This means that the computer and modem can be used to record and play voice files by converting analog speech signals into digital and vice versa.  One application of this capability is to use the computer as an answering machine, which may be an advantage for some people with visual or manipulation impairments.  Another application is to use the computer as a telephone.

Software is now available that uses a voice modem to emulate a TTY without the need for a separate TTY modem.

Computer and Internet telephony

It is possible to use a computer (optionally with the Internet) to place and receive telephone calls.  This can be done several ways:

(a)  PC as dialer only

Many contact management programs allow the user to search for a name and dial any of the phone numbers associated with that name automatically, using the modem’s ability to seize the line and dial the number.  Both modem software and operating system software also include the ability to place a call, although the user may have to enter the dialed number manually.  Once the call is placed, a regular telephone connected to the same line is used to continue the call.  At the end of the call the user may have to hang up the telephone and end the computer-initiated call or the modem will remain off-hook.

This feature may benefit some people with mobility/manipulation, visual, or cognitive impairments.

(b)  PC-to-telephone calls

Users can make direct telephone calls as above, using contact management software, modem software, or an operating system feature to dial.  No telephone is needed, as the sound card receives the outbound audio from its microphone jack and delivers the inbound audio to its speaker or headset jack.  The modem must be connected internally to the sound card so that it can serve as the telephone line manager.

A user’s PC can also be set to receive telephone calls.  When a call comes in it may trigger an audible signal (such as a simulated ring) and/or cause the screen to flash or a new window to appear.  The user may be able to set the phone feature to auto-answer, which may benefit people with mobility/manipulation impairments.  The visual signal would be an advantage for people who are hard of hearing (see the section below on text conversations for a discussion of computer telephony benefits for people who are deaf).  Some modems include the ability to receive the Caller ID information (Bell 202).  Some contact management programs can hunt for the name associated with the incoming number and automatically open the contact page for that person.  Others open a small window containing the incoming number.  Either of these features, if the PC is connected to a speech synthesizer, can announce the Caller ID information, which would benefit a person with a visual impairment.

In the Internet-based version of computer telephony, the user first establishes an Internet connection and launches an Internet telephony program.  This program includes an address book/ dialer component. When the user indicates a number to be dialed (the “terminating” number), the computer sends the number through the Internet service provider to a server established by the company that provides the Internet telephony service (the originating server).  That server looks up the number and identifies the server on its network that is closest to the terminating number (the terminating server).  The originating server then places the call by sending the terminating number to the terminating server, which dials the terminating number on a regular phone line.  When the connection is made, the call is actually traveling on two different facilities: the Internet connection, which reaches from the user’s computer to the terminating server, and a regular phone line, which reaches from the terminating server to the terminating number.

The computer takes the audio input from the sound card and digitizes it, sending it out the modem as Internet data packets.  The terminating server performs the same function in reverse, converting the data packets back into a voice signal.  Whatever the person on the terminating number says is converted into data packets by the terminating server, which sends those packets to the user’s computer.  The computer converts the packets into voice.

Most people who use Internet telephony this way do so because calls (especially international ones) can be much less expensive.  Services that include the Internet-to-voice network gateway require users to establish an account in advance, which is debited as it is used.

Because the Internet is a packet network that may be congested, it is possible for packets to arrive out of order, too slowly, or not at all.  Packets that arrive out of order are re-ordered so they are played properly.  But packets that are too slow in arriving or do not arrive at all cause the audio signal to sound choppy or disjointed.  Long silences may occur.  Slow modems can contribute to this problem as well.  These effects may make Internet telephony difficult for people with auditory processing impairments, people who are hard of hearing, and those who wish to call TTY users.

(c)  Direct PC-to-PC calls

Users can make direct PC-to-PC calls in two ways.  First, if the caller is using either the “PC as dialer” or “PC-to-telephone” system (non-Internet) and the other person has his or her computer on and set to receive calls on the phone line, a PC-to-PC call happens as a coincidence.

A direct call over the Internet can be placed once both computers are connected to the Internet.  (Sometimes people make a short regular telephone call to tell the other person to get online.)  Several facilities (e.g. ICQ and “buddy lists”) exist to locate people who are online; Internet telephony tools use this information to connect by voice with the intended person.

Again, the principal reason people use this is to reduce their telephone costs.  A direct Internet call without a gateway service costs nothing more than the cost of the Internet connection for the duration of the call, which for people with unlimited service is essentially nothing.

All the accessibility advantages (screen notification of incoming calls, reduced motor and cognitive load for dialing) and disadvantages (choppy audio) remain the same as indirect Internet telephony.

Special Internet telephony devices

Given the cost attraction to Internet telephony, but the technical complexity as a barrier, some companies have created special Internet telephones.

One such product requires either an identical device (into which a regular phone is plugged) or a compatible multimedia computer at both ends.  The caller first places a direct call to the other person, in order to find out if an Internet call is convenient.  If it is, both people hang up.  Both devices proceed to automatically connect to their respective Internet service providers and complete an Internet call.  To our knowledge, none of these products has been tested for TTY calls.

Other devices are simpler, such as a telephone that plugs into the computer sound card and bundled software that lets the user place Internet telephony calls as above.

Email    (Note that email is not covered by the Access Board’s Guidelines, since it is an information service, not equipment used in telecommunications.  However email was the subject of so many consumer comments and is directly related to modem operation that we treated it here briefly.)

Electronic mail allows users to create messages (while online or offline) and send them to other email users.  Since email is a predominantly text medium, it poses few content access problems.  Users who can access any text application on their computer can access email.  Since email is not a real-time medium, users who have difficulty typing can construct their messages offline without feeling hurried, and then send them when they go online.  More consumers mentioned email than any other online service, and the comments were almost unanimously positive:

A user with low vision:

“If I didn’t have [email] I don’t know what I would do. … I can’t remember what it was like before.”

A user with speech impairment

“At first I didn’t want to use it but my family was adamant.  Now they can’t shut me up … it’s so easy for me to use. I can take as long as I need to type my message.  I even correct my spelling now.”

Two users who are blind:

“I log on several times a day to check my email.  And there’s always something there.  More and more it’s something I want to respond to, so I do it right away.  And more and more when I log on the next time I have another answer.  It’s great.”

“My screen reader works fine with my email. … I can’t remember one problem I had.  I use it every day, and the rest of my family does too.  I used to think that I couldn’t keep up but now it’s the poor fax users who can’t keep up.”

Some products and services exist that allow users to retrieve email in spoken form, via a speech synthesizer.  Some of these products are software located on the user’s own computer.  The user’s computer automatically checks for email on a regular basis.  The user dials into his or her own computer, enters a security code, and listens to the downloaded messages rendered into speech.

The other form of spoken email are services (generally supported by advertising) allowing users to forward their email messages to a speech synthesis-capable server connected to a set of telephone lines (often toll-free for a set number of minutes per month).  Like a voice mail service, the user calls the access number, enters a security code, and listens to the email.

Users who are deaf or hard of hearing said that they occasionally used email instead of their TTY, but that they often used it instead of relay because relay calls are so long.  One such user said she used email at work because she was connected all the time, but joked that she used it less at home because it “took almost as long as a relay call to get online.”

Internet Text Conversations

More analogous to voice telephone calls are real-time text conversation applications.  Examples of these are chat (sometimes called “chat rooms” or “lines”), ICQ, and AOL Instant Messaging.  In chat, users join specific chat sessions, which may have themes or topics of conversation.  Everyone who is in the same session sees everything the others type.

ICQ and AOL Instant Messaging are usually 2-person conversations, although they are not technically limited to this.  Both allow a user to create a list of people about whose online presence one is notified.  There can be visual notification of waiting messages.  Both programs are available free, and AOL Instant Messaging can be used by non-AOL members.

Use of these tools has grown in the workplace as well as at home.  Colleagues can ask each other instant questions – like a somewhat more intrusive form of email.  As one consumer who is deaf said:

“We use it at work too.  When I get back from lunch or a meeting my screen is covered with little windows I have to do something about.  When I worked at [company name] I used to have to beg for interpreters.  This is better because everyone is using it, not just for me.”