After getting assurances that an initial 45-cent monthly surcharge on individual phone bills will be reduced soon, the Board of Public Works approved a $32.7 million contract setting up the first statewide telecommunications system for the Maryland's 350,000 hearing- and speech-impaired residents.
The approval drew smiles and applause from several dozen deaf people who followed the board's action yesterday in Annapolis by watching a sign language translator.
Using a sophisticated telephone and computer package known as Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), the system will make it possible for deaf people to "talk" by telephone with almost the same ease as those without speech and hearing problems.
Beginning in December, deaf people whose phones are equipped with a teleprinter can call the new service and send printed messages to an operator. The operator will contact the person being called and relay messages back and forth, speaking to the hearing person by phone and sending printed messagesto the deaf person.
By federal law, states are required to set up such phone systems as part of a 1990 initiative to make phone service universally available to the nation's deaf and hearing-impaired population.
"I, as a deaf person, cannot call you. You cannot call me," said Michael Moore, chairman of the governor's telecommunications advisory board and a professor at Gallaudet College. "That's what it's all about -- equal access."
The three-year contract was awarded to Kansas-based Sprint Services, which received the highest technical and price evaluation scores. Only one other firm, AT&T of New Jersey, submitted a bid.
Maryland lawmakers passed TRS-related legislation this year and gave the state Public Service Commission authority to charge individual phone users up to 45 cents a month to pay for it.
When the PSC decided to add the entire 45-cent surcharge to monthly bills, it got more than 1,000 complaints from customers who were unfamiliar with the TRS program or thought the fee was too high.
Opponents of the maximum surcharge were joined by the Maryland Association of the Deaf, which said charging the full relay costs to all telephone users was unfair. At 45 cents per line, Maryland's charge is as much as 15 times higher than other states'. Pennsylvania, for example, charges three cents per line.
Sensitive to the complaints, Martin W. Walsh, the state's secretary of general services, said the monthly surcharge should drop to 31 cents by next January after start-up costs are paid. The surcharge generates about $1.1 million each month for the TRS fund.
Walsh said Marylanders could see the surcharge dip as low as 18 cents a month later if demand for the system falls below anticipated levels.