FCC Approves VRS Trials Using Specialist Interpreters

March 23, 2017–The FCC today unanimously authorized eight-month trials using video relay service (VRS) specialists in legal, medical, and computer support terminology when appropriate and using deaf VRS interpreters on calls placed by people with limited signing ability or comprehension, although one Commissioner said he would not support making these changes permanent unless the trials demonstrate improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In a report and order, notice of inquiry, further notice of proposed rulemaking (FNPRM), and order adopted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs docket 10-51 and 03-123 at today’s Commission meeting, the FCC also authorized VRS providers to make phone numbers available to hearing individuals who know American Sign Language so they can make direct-dialed video calls with deaf individuals.

It also authorized a pilot program to allow VRS interpreters to do their jobs from home “under strict requirements to maintain call quality and confidentiality,” according to an FCC press release.

“To help consumers compare VRS providers, the report and order requires [reporting of] monthly data on [each provider’s] speed of answer,” Robert Aldrich, a legal adviser in the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said while presenting the item to the Commissioners.

The notice of inquiry will seek comment on additional performance metrics that might be useful to consumers, such as the accuracy of sign language interpreters, the quality of the video transmission, and continuity of service, he added.  It also seeks input on how to address VRS calls that may not be legitimate, such as harassing calls.

The FNPRM proposes a four-year system of tiered compensation rates that would provide higher per-minute compensation for smaller VRS providers with lower calling volumes.  It would also seek input on whether to prohibit non-service-related inducements to use a VRS provider’s service, such as free video game systems, Mr. Aldrich said.  The FNPRM asks whether “the TRS Fund should set aside amounts for research and development designed to improve VRS.  It also proposes a more efficient means of routing VRS and video calls and seeks to improve how VRS calls made from enterprise and public phones are validated to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse,” the press release said.  “Lastly, this proposal would permit business and government customer support centers to enter telephone numbers in the separate telecommunications relay service numbering directory so that VRS users can communicate directly in sign language with service representatives working in those centers.”

“Finally, the item includes an order that would temporarily defer the effectiveness of a recently adopted VRS interoperability standard pending authorization of the new call-routing method proposed in the further notice,” Mr. Aldrich said.

The text of the item was not available at TRDaily’s news deadline. In her separate statement, Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said, “I am particularly pleased that the draft includes questions on how to decrease scam calls to VRS users. Just last month, the [Internal Revenue Service] issued a warning about a new scam targeting VRS users. … I am pretty sure that it is not accidental, that the Chairman has included, in a separate docket today, the opportunity for us to take action, to combat the problem of scam robocalls. It is only fitting that we do the same, for VRS users. I am also pleased, that we seek comment on how to decrease competitive bottlenecks, by improving access to interpreters, and on how to address inducements that some providers may use, to lure individuals to use their service.”

Commissioner Mike O’Rielly emphasized his interest in ensuring that “the VRS program is targeted to bridge actual, demonstrated gaps.  As consumers as a whole migrate to new technologies, apps, and services, the Commission should consider to what extent these innovations are being used by and can benefit those with communications disabilities as well.  We already know that they are quite popular among the hearing impaired community, but we need to know to what degree they operate as a replacement function for voice, which seems to be quite substantial just as it is in the overall population.  To the extent that off the shelf technologies, such as free texting applications, can serve as a better and more effective means of service, embracing these innovations could be a way to promote true functional equivalency, without depending on the Fund to provide the sole solution.  The burden on carriers, and ultimately ratepayers, to pay for VRS and other telecommunications relay services must be targeted to what is actually necessary to meet the statutory obligation, and relying in part on non-VRS technology is one way to help advance that goal.”

He said that the notice of inquiry as adopted includes his requested revision from the original draft to treat “efficiency and cost-effectiveness as explicit goals for the program, consistent with the statu[t]e.”

“Second, the item seeks comment on possible rate changes, including the Joint VRS Providers Proposal, as well as other possible methodologies, including price caps and market based mechanisms.  I welcome input on ways to create a cost-effective structure that is sustainable over the long-term.  I have been sympathetic to the idea that the smaller providers should have a reasonable opportunity to reach the optimum scale to compete effectively.  For that reason, I supported an interim rate freeze last year.  As we look ahead, however, I want to be assured that all providers are on track to sustain their operations based on reasonable costs and funding levels,” Commissioner O’Rielly said.

He added, “[L]et me be very clear, in approving this item, that I, in no way, endorse the concept that the Commission has any authority over domain names.  I previously opposed expanding the Commission’s authority over telephone numbers to IP addresses and domain names as part of the net neutrality fiasco, so it is an issue that I will review closely as the record develops.  If there is a specific and narrowly targeted change to the statute that could improve routing without setting dangerous precedent in other contexts, then the Commission should respectfully recommend it to Congress.”

“Third, the item also embarks on various trials, justified in part on the premise that potential changes could make the program more efficient and ultimately save money.  To be clear, I still have significant reservations about the Commission’s legal authority to conduct trials in any capacity, including in the TRS program, and the cost and benefits of the expansive new data collections.  Since the Commission is determined to proceed down this path, I will reluctantly agree to see how it plays out.  However, count me as one that will not be supportive of making permanent changes unless the trials definitely demonstrate that such changes would actually make the program more efficient and cost-effective,” Commissioner O’Rielly said.

Chairman Ajit Pai said, “I look forward to working with my colleagues on further steps to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are provided with functionally equivalent communications services—or, in English, are brought over to the right side of the digital divide.” – Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@woltersklkuwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily