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Staying Connected Anytime, Anywhere . . . Forever?

Line graph of mobile device shipments from 2010 to 2015An intriguing report by wireless consultant Chetan Sharma shows that mobile wireless is growing rapidly, as expected. The drivers of this growth are, surprisingly, not mobile phones, but tablets, e-books and other non-phone devices. Which tells a bigger story: that of the ability of the wireless Internet infrastructure to absorb exponential growth in the next decade.

As cell-phone coverage and Wi-Fi expand around the world, the ability to connect anytime, anywhere has never been more important for people with disabilities (PwDs). Yet the growth of the mobile Internet — and the entire Internet for that matter — may present potential issues for PwDs who rely on this platform to live better-quality lives, as overtaxed Internet service providers (ISPs) investigate ways to limit access to the Internet. Some features of the Internet require high bandwidth and extensive data traffic, and some PwDs rely on these features to live more independently.

When the Internet shot into the public consciousness in 1995, it enabled PwDs to access information they could not otherwise reach. When, in the early 2000’s, dial-up connections gave way to broadband access, more data became reachable to PwDs, and they in turn were able to leverage the power of broadband to control their own lives. Now, as mobile wireless becomes more prominent in the Internet landscape, it presents PwDs with new ways to live more independent lives, not just physically in the home, but elsewhere.

Already, with the iPhone 4, deaf and hard-of-hearing customers can make calls anywhere outside the home, a feature that was always available to hearing callers as long as the mobile phone industry existed. The existence of Wi-Fi in coffeehouses and other establishments meant that PwDs could utilize accessibility software without being tethered to desktop computers, providing them with more social and professional options.

A major concern for the near future is the ability of the existing Internet infrastructure to absorb increased traffic, fueled by mobile wireless and heavy video usage. Many users have unlimited data access to Internet content. Because of this current model, there are already cracks in the Internet infrastructure, as ISPs, including telecommunications companies, struggle to find profitable ways to limit data access while keeping their customer bases. This potentially creates issues of data access for PwDs who rely on fast connections and heavy data usage to achieve the same quality of life for themselves as for non-disabled people.

For example, Video Relay Services (VRS) relies on video streaming to deliver quality calls over the Internet for its deaf customers. Since live video streaming takes up massive bandwidth, and VRS usage is increasing dramatically among deaf and hard-of-hearing callers, data capping by ISPs could become a significant issue.

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates equal access for PwDs, the specter of degraded accessibility as a result of data capping might be interpreted as a violation of ADA laws. It would be prudent for ISPs to take a good hard look at the legal and practical implications of limiting this type of access for their disabled subscribers. A strong precedent is the discount program provided by telephone carriers since the 1970’s for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers who use TTYs or TDDs (Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf). Phone calls by deaf people utilizing these devices took up to ten times as long as phone calls by hearing people, which drove up telephone bills among deaf customers for years. By discounting phone bills, deaf callers became more comfortable with making their phone calls without worrying about financial costs, ensuring them a level of accessibility over telephone lines.

In the context of rapidly evolving technologies which require more wired and wireless data to be effectively transmitted over the Internet, the unlimited-data Internet model is, as far as I can see, unsustainable over the long term. As not everything under the sun is free, there should be a way to limit the data traffic while providing users with a satisfactory online experience. There will be innovative software and hardware solutions to address this issue. Until those solutions hit the market, all Internet users will potentially absorb any hit to their ability to access the Internet and perhaps experience degraded access. This will hit PwDs the hardest, since it directly affects their quality-of-life issue, unless there are solutions to mitigate that potential impact.

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