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FCC Offers No-Cost Technology Platform to Enable Businesses to Communicate Directly with Hearing-Challenged Customers

CRMXchange

Presented By: CRMXchange



As the title of the still popular song written 90 years ago tells us: “The best things in life are free.” But while the moon and the stars belong to everyone, there has almost invariably been a price attached to obtaining sophisticated contact center technology.

Now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is making its ACE Direct open source solution available to businesses and government agencies at no cost. The acronym stands for ‘Accessible Communications for Everyone’. The platform is the prime component of an ongoing initiative to enable direct communication with deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind and speech-disabled citizens in American Sign Language (ASL).

The FCC brought together TRS/VRS (telecommunications relay service/video relay service) users, software developers, engineers, technologists and members of the deaf community to develop ACE Direct. The goal is to achieve interoperability of video communications for hearing challenged populations so they can use VRS to make direct video calls (DVC) anytime with anyone using any VRS provider.

The FCC has incorporated interoperability specifications into its rules to ensure that VRS providers are using modern systems with common standards to enable consumers’ communications. Through the ACE initiative, the FCC worked with contractors to develop and release an open source code for a prototype video call routing platform and software tools to enable network and device testing that are designed to ensure that VRS providers achieve compliance with FCC interoperability standards.

David “Raster” Schmidt, TRS Fund Program Coordinator for the FCC and Robert McConnell, Telecommunications Accessibility Analyst for the FCC’s Disability Rights Office, made a presentation on the ACE Direct Program at the April 2017 PACE (Professional Association for Customer Engagement) Convention and Expo in Tampa, FL. They discussed how the direct video calling (DVC) solution allows hearing-disabled consumers to communicate directly in ASL with FCC call center agents who also know the language. They also outlined the FCC’s effort to augment progress by launching its own ASL Consumer Support Line.

“We’re providing a service where we pay independent companies to provide what we call ‘relayed service’ to deaf, deaf/blind and hard of hearing consumers,” said Schmidt. “There’s a third party to all these calls: these populations—as well as speech-disabled Americans-- will have access to the telephone network via a variety of services that meet their particular needs.” For example, McConnell, who is deaf, participated in the conference call interview for this article employing ASL to communicate. He used a video relay service to connect with an interpreter/operator who then made the audio call for him and voiced his remarks to the conversation.

All the FCC’s services are internet protocol based: IP Relay, IP CTS and VRS. Since the range of hearing loss varies widely, the program offers several options: one is caption telephone service for people who do not know ASL but can speak intelligibly. Users receive captions on their phone like closed captioning on a television show. “Someone would be listening to everything the agent is saying and re-voicing it into a speech recognition system where it would show us as captions after a slight delay,” said Schmidt.

While relay delivers the “functionally equivalent” phone service as is mandated under Title 10 regulations, Schmidt noted that over the past two years, they believed that technology had matured, especially in contact center environments where there is a sufficient call volume from hearing-disabled consumers, to route these video calls through the contact center.  “They could be received, routed, queued and with the appropriate CRM system to process the data transfer, handled the same as a standard voice call from a hearing customer,” said Schmidt. “This is what we refer to as direct video communication.”

Deaf people will be able to call into a contact center, use IVR menus and have it processed the same way as a hearing customer’s inquiries are handled. When the call gets to the agent, the appropriate platform will be in place to have the agent communicate with the caller via ASL, and when available, have all the helpful screen pops come up on the agent’s screen. “It’s a fully functioning call center platform that incorporates video,” said Schmidt. “We also built in a WebRTC interface so hearing disabled customers can go in through a website and the “call” originating there can be queued just as though the consumer had made the call on their video phone,” noted Schmidt. “The advantage is that WebRTC adds real-time text capability. Instead of having to sign information through ASL, hearing impaired callers can enter it directly on a character-by-character basis…it’s completely customizable.”

“We built all of this to give away,” he said. “Every component of it is open source created in a modular fashion. We built in the capability to communicate with any legacy CRM system—ours was Zendesk because it’s open source--but you can exchange data with any data base via an enterprise service bus. We built it to be as adaptable and flexible as possible. Our goal is to drive as many businesses and agencies as possible to ‘yes’; to make it as easy as possible for any entities who wish to serve this population do so without having to put it on the back burner.”

According to Schmidt, “For the FCC, it’s about good government.  It’s about serving the hearing disabled population as well as possible and moving the ball forward.” The agency is prepared to demo the entire suite which consists of several open source platforms, including Asterisk as the PBX, Zendesk as the CRM, Node.js to help to build scalable network applications and Apache Service Mix as the enterprise service bus. In the final phase of development, they plan to offer a one-click self-install, which has already been proven to have the entire platform operating within three minutes. “We will give businesses and agencies the documentation around the code, all of the “how-tos” to make it work…in short, everything we have developed, and say please take it and use it.” said Schmidt.

Beyond the goal of providing direct video communications for the deaf population, the FCC also will benefit from any modifications that users might make in in the system. “There are really only two requirements,” said Schmidt, who acquired the call handle “Raster” during his tenure as an Air Force F15 pilot. “A company must tell us about any improvements they’ve made and cannot resell the technology.”

While the FCC is currently working with government agencies such as the SSA (Social Security Administration), they need to make inroads with commercial businesses to get the program into widespread use. In addition to the prime use in the contact center, Schmidt envisions other potential use cases for ACE Direct including as a:

Remote video interpreting platform

Staff augmentation program for airlines to be able to communicate with passengers via a remote mobile app using onboard wi-fi when the onboard flight staff can speak their language

Mobile personal shopper app to provide multi-lingual guidance in big box stores

 

Companies can download the service by going to fcc.gov/acedirect or obtain it from Amazon Web Services.  “It’s a powerful tool that makes the most of Automated Speech Recognition technology,” said Schmidt, “It’s easy, cheap and it works for everyone.”