The load on the telephone relay system for the speech- and hearing-impaired has outstripped the service's capacity and funding.

"It is handling over 8,000 calls a month. And volume could double in the foreseeable future," said Tim Funk, a member of the advisory committee that oversees the service."Some callers must take 10 minutes or more to complete a call during peak time," Funk said.

The system uses Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf - a keyboard and display attached to a telephone - to relay telephone conversations to and from people with speech or hearing impediments.

The relay service has given the hearing- or speech-impaired equal access to the telephone network. A hearing person now can contact a deaf person via telephone through the service.

The relay system was established by the Legislature in 1987 and began operating in January. The service is funded by a 3-cent monthly surcharge on telephone bills that generates $235,000 annually.

The surcharge must be increased to at least 6 cents monthly to meet demand, said Madelaine Perkins, project director for the Utah Relay Service.

"We probably could be handling another 4,000 calls if we had more operators," Perkins said. "I think we probably could put on at least four more full-time operators."

The 24-hour service, located at the Utah Community Center for the Deaf, Bountiful, has 14 operators. The Utah Association for the Deaf has a $192,000 contract to operate the system.

The program serves 15,000 people statewide who are hearing- or speech-impaired, Funk said. More than 100,000 people with minor disabilities might use the system at certain times.

"Three cents just was not enough to do what the program was set up to do," said Joe Dunlop, a telecommunications analyst for the state Public Service Commission.

The PSC will support an amendment in the next session of the Legislature to remove the 3-cent cap on the surcharge, Dunlop said. The commission would hold hearings to determine the surcharge.

Sen. Paul Fordham, D-Taylorsville, said he has agreed to sponsor the amendment.

The surcharge in other states ranges from 25 cents to 50 cents a month, Dunlop said.

Dunlop said the relay system increases the value of the telephone network because more people can be reached by telephone. And Perkins estimated that 25 percent of the calls are from people who can hear.

"We have a double benefit there. It is not just for the deaf," said Rick Holt, staff manager in regulatory affairs for US WEST Communications and a member of the advisory committee that oversees the service.

Increasing the surcharge also would fund distribution of TDDs to low-income families, as required in the legislation establishing the service. TDDs cost $250 to $350. Approximately 1,000 low-income households are eligible for free TDDs, Dunlop said.

The program has not distributed TDDs because of the lack of funding.

In addition, the language in the existing legislation, which calls the surcharge a "deaf tax," would be changed to "TDD Access Charge" in the amendment.

US WEST Communications, which opposed the initial bill, successfully lobbied for the 3-cent cap on the surcharge and for the language calling the surcharge a deaf tax.

US WEST supports the idea of a relay system but believes the service should be funded through general tax revenues instead of a surcharge on telephone bills.

"It is not just for the hearing-impaired and it is not a tax," Funk said. "It is for the speech-impaired, which includes people who are hard of hearing."

US WEST will not oppose the amendment to the legislation, Holt said. "We are real pleased with the results of the system and the way it's growing."

"For years and years, we talk about equal access - to buildings, to education, to programs," Perkins added. "And deaf people have been limited to calling only other people with TDDs. Equal access to the telephone allows them to communicate as freely over the telephone as hearing people historically have been able to do."