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FCC Acts to Increase Oversight of Video-Relay Services

‘Neutral entities’ to verify that users are hearing impaired

The U.S. government is proposing to strengthen oversight of the federal program that pays for video-relay services for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers by contracting “neutral entities” to verify that users of the program are actually hearing impaired and not fakes hired to increase payments to the companies providing the services.

In addition, the Federal Communications Commission plans to establish providers’ compensation rates using the payments made to the neutral entities as a benchmark on what the rates for those services should be before holding auctions of blocks of selected telephone numbers, according to a notice of proposed rule making posted on the Federal Register on July 5.

The NPRM — Structure and Practices of the Video Relay Service Program: Telecommunications Relay Services and Speech-to-Speech Services for Individuals With Hearing and Speech Disabilities — details the history of the VRS program, the problems that surfaced with it, proposed fixes as well as a request for comments on the FCC’s plans.

In March 2000, the FCC determined the VRS to be a reimbursable service funded by charges included on Americans’ telephone bills and administered by the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, according to the notice. However, VRS rates have “fluctuated significantly,” with rates frequently being recalculated, according to the commission.

In addition, the “absence of retail prices” was a factor that enabled some providers to artificially generate VRS service minutes and subsequently file fraudulent claims, the NPRM said.

To reduce the likelihood that service providers are seeking reimbursements for fake services, the FCC proposes to set prices through a competitive bidding process, where feasible, the NPRM said.

In addition, the FCC said it plans “to establish a compensation rate” for VRS communications assistants using the compensation rates of the “neutral video communication service provider [who verifies the service users are hearing impaired] contract as a benchmark.”

Once the benchmark is established, the FCC plans to use auctions to establish “a per-minute rate for CA service,” the notice says. ITRS data indicates that a sizeable percentage of billable VRS calls are placed to a relatively small number of telephone numbers, and service providers would bid on blocks of selected telephone numbers, the NPRM said.

“Given this pattern of calling, the commission proposes that an auction of the right to provide VRS CA service for all calls” could be used to establish a market rate, the notice said.

However, the FCC is seeking comments on the use of an auction to regulate VRS prices. The deadline for initial comments is Aug. 19 and for reply comments is Sept. 18.

Click here to access the NPRM.