FCC Actions Block Consumer VRS Calls

FCC Actions Block Consumer VRS Calls
The NAD learned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not paid Video Relay Service (VRS) providers for certain types of VRS calls since July 2009.  As a result, some VRS providers are not connecting or may stop connecting some VRS calls.  This is not functionally equivalent to the communication access that hearing telephone users enjoy.  We urged the FCC to start a rulemaking process to promote transparency and ensure stakeholder input, before the FCC takes any action which may limit or restrict VRS calls.

On behalf of several consumer groups, the NAD contacted the FCC about this matter on January 12 and sent a follow up letter (http://www.nad.org/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=237&qid=517854).  We expressed concerns about reported actions of the National Exchange Carriers Association (NECA), the Telecommunications Relay Service

(TRS) Fund administrator.  We urged the FCC to take the following actions:
* quickly resolve any VRS payment withholding disputes by instructing NECA to release the payments until a rulemaking about permitted calls is completed;
* take immediate action to ensure that VRS providers continue to permit and connect VRS calls made to a telephone user’s number; and
* issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), to promote transparency and ensure stakeholder input, before the

Commission takes any action which may limit or restrict VRS calls.

The following week, several VRS providers sent a letter (http://www.nad.org/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=238&qid=517854) urging the FCC to issue an NPRM to establish clear rules about which VRS calls may (and may not) be paid for by the TRS Fund.  Over the past year, this request has been made many times by many providers, consumer groups, and other stakeholders.  In their letter, these VRS providers also asked the FCC to clarify the procedures for withholding payment for any VRS calls.  They said that, without FCC action, “VRS providers are placed in the impossible position on the one hand of being obligated by the TRS rules to continue to process all calls as they are received . . . yet, on the other hand providers are being denied compensation for the costs they incur to handle those calls.”

On January 27, the NAD, with other consumer groups, filed a formal petition (http://www.nad.org/sites/all/modules/civicrm/extern/url.php?u=239&qid=517854) urging the FCC to address these VRS issues.  This is urgent because withholding payment for VRS calls, indefinitely, impacts the provision of VRS services to deaf and hard of hearing consumers.

We told the FCC that we learned that NECA is withholding payment for some VRS calls: calls that are connected to automated call response or interactive voice response (IVR) systems; calls that are connected to recorded communication, such as that provided by government agencies; multiple calls from a single videophone/VRS number; multiple calls to a single telephone number; calls to technical support services (i.e., Blackberry and T-Mobile during a service outage); calls connected to telephone conference call service numbers; and other types of calls. These kinds of phone calls are typically provided by phone companies, are technologically feasible through VRS, and are required to be connected and handled in accordance with the FCC’s rules.  As a result of the NECA payment withholdings, some VRS providers may be financially unable to continue providing service for those types of calls.

Further, we recently learned that, since July 2009, NECA has withheld payment in some instances and their review is “ongoing.” We also learned that NECA has not paid VRS providers for any VRS calls made to “recorded messages” since July 2009, apparently because NECA believes these are not calls involving a hearing individual.  This interpretation defies logic, is inconsistent with FCC rules, and is erroneous.

Reasonable exercise of the FCC’s and NECA’s authority should not, directly or indirectly, impact negatively on the delivery of TRS to consumers; diminish functional equivalency; or limit, restrict, or disable consumers’ access to the telephone network. While we applaud efforts to ensure the integrity of the TRS Fund, it is our position that VRS calls to a telephone user’s number must be permitted, connected, and reimbursed by the TRS Fund, unless there is clear and unequivocal evidence of fraud against the VRS program.

We urged the FCC to start the rulemaking process to identify and to address potential waste, fraud, and abuse by providing clarification about permissible marketing practices and the types of calls that are compensable by the TRS Fund.  Finally, we urged the FCC to ensure that this rulemaking furthers the achievement of functional equivalency; protects consumer privacy; addresses fraud through appropriate investigation and enforcement action; and does not limit or restrict consumer VRS calls, directly or indirectly, through NECA’s back door.  Rules must be clear, guidance must be provided, response to requests for clarification must be prompt, and compliance and enforcement measures must be transparent.

The NAD looks forward to working with the FCC, NECA, VRS providers, and other stakeholders in the development of rules and appropriate procedures to ensure the integrity of the TRS Fund and achieve functional equivalency for all deaf and hard of hearing consumers.

What Consumers Can Do

Type 03-123 in the first box marked “Proceeding Number,” type your name and contact information, and tell the FCC how you use VRS and why VRS is important to you. Tell the FCC:

I support the Petition to Initiate a Notice and Comment Rulemaking Proceeding filed by the National Association of the Deaf.


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