PORTLAND — Representatives of Maine’s telecommunications industry will meet later this week in Portland to discuss how federal efforts to expand broadband access will affect residents who have disabilities, particularly those who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or blind.

At issue is the ability of disabled people to access and use broadband Internet service, which the federal government sees as critical to growing the economy, creating jobs, improving global competitiveness and increasing Americans’ standard of living.

Also to be discussed is the potential impact of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan on funding for so-called relay services, which traditionally help deaf and hearing-impaired people communicate via telephone, but are increasingly needed for online communication.

The event – “The National Broadband Plan: What is it? Why Should I Care?” – will be held Thursday and Friday at the Holiday Inn by the Bay and is open to the public.

The forum is presented by Maine’s Telecommunications Relay Services advisory council, which advises Gov. Paul LePage and writes contracts with companies that provide telephone relay services to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Citing FCC data, a news release from the council said that only 42 percent of people with a disability use broadband Internet service, compared with 65 percent of the broader population.

But even if they have broadband access, disabled people face barriers to using the Internet, said the release.

For instance, Web pages typically aren’t designed for people with vision or hearing difficulties, and online videos often lack captioning.

Also, specialized software and hardware that help disabled people use the Internet can be prohibitively expensive.

Among those expected to speak at the event are Maine Public Utilities Commission chairman Thomas Welch and Karen Peltz Strauss, FCC deputy bureau chief in the consumer and government affairs bureau. Representatives from the ConnectME Authority, Maine’s Office of the Public Advocate, Time Warner Cable and others also are scheduled to talk.

People who are deaf or heard of hearing already have free access to services that allow them to make phone calls through an electronic device called a teletypewriter, or TTY. They can also receive discounts on relay equipment and telephone bills.

But similar programs are largely unavailable for Internet users, said Claude Stout, executive director of Silver Spring, Md.-based TDI, a nonprofit group that promotes improved telecommunications access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

For instance, said Stout, who is hard of hearing and spoke through an interpreter, there are no programs to help disabled people purchase computer equipment or pay monthly Internet bills.

Barbara Keefe, vice chair of the advisory council, said her colleagues are particularly interested in how the broadband plan will affect funding for relay services, which are currently paid for through the Universal Service Fund. Traditional telephone companies pay into the fund with money collected from consumers, who pay universal service fees tacked onto phone bills.

Keefe, who works in Falmouth and is an outreach specialist at PEPNet-Northeast, a group that helps schools improve programs for deaf or hard-of-hearing students, said telephone companies could be forced to raise rates if universal service fees on telephone bills are eliminated or reduced by the broadband plan.

Congress directed the FCC in 2009 to create the National Broadband Plan to bring affordable broadband Internet access to all Americans. According to the FCC, some 100 million Americans lack access to broadband services at home.

According to the Telecommunications Relay Services Advisory Council, broadband is available in 90 percent of Maine.

 

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]