The U.S. government is proposing new certification requirements for video relay services (VRS)—used by deaf consumers to participate in telephone communications—to ensure those organizations are fully qualified to provide those services.
On May 2, 2011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) posted a Federal Register notice—Structure and Practices of the Video Relay Services Program—seeking comment “on proposed modifications to its certification process for Internet-based relay providers to ensure that all entities seeking certification to provide Internet based telecommunications relay services (TRS) in the future—or currently certified entities seeking recertification—are fully qualified to provide Internet-based relay service.”
Under the proposed changes, the FCC would be the only agency that could certify VRS providers to perform those services, and payment to a VRS provider would be linked to its certification. The changes would prevent a VRS provider that is not FCC certified from receiving compensation because of past circumstances under which it received payment. Those circumstances include:
- Because it has a contract with a certified state TRS program
- Because it has a contract with an interstate common carrier
- Because it is an interstate common carrier
- Because it is certified by a state
The FCC says it wants to amend the VRS regulation—including the payment rules—because existing “methods has failed to ensure that providers are qualified to provide VRS or to provide the commission with the requisite information to determine whether providers are complying with the commission’s TRS rules.”
The proposed changes in the VRS rules are because the program’s structure has made it vulnerable to fraud and abuse, “which have plagued the current program and threatened its long-term sustainability,” the FCC says.
In November 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 26 people for allegedly manufacturing and billing the TRS fund for illegitimate calls, most of whom have either pleaded guilty or been convicted. In addition, the FCC continues to receive numerous allegations of abusive practices by VRS providers, resulting in criminal investigations. Those investigations have been the subject of semi-annual reports that the FCC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has submitted to Congress. The OIG reports on those investigations lists evidence of illicit VRS activities. That list includes:
- Callers specifically requesting that the call not be relayed by the communications assistant (CA) to a third party
- Calls placed to numbers that do not require any relaying, for example a voice-to-voice call
- Calls initiated from international IP addresses by callers with little or no fluency in American sign language (ASL) where the connection is permitted to “run” (i.e., the line is simply left open without any relaying of the call occurring)
- Implementation of “double privacy screens” (i.e., where both users to the video leg of the call block their respective video displays, thus making communication impossible)
- VRS CAs calling themselves
- CAs connecting videophones/computers and letting them run with no parties participating in the call
- Callers disconnecting from one illegitimate call and immediately calling back to initiate another
- Callers admitting that they were paid to make TRS calls
To counter those, and other, “illicit VRS activities,” on Aug. 23, 2010, the FCC issues a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM)—VRS Call Practices NPRM—which seeks to reduce and ultimately eliminate fraud and abuse, and to improve the integrity and sustainability of the TRS Fund that pays for the program. The NPRM covered areas such as:
- The locations of VRS call centers
- VRS CAs working from home
- Compensation for VRS CAs
- Procedures for the suspension of payment from the TRS Fund
- The permissibility of specific call practices
- Ways to detect and stop the billing of illegitimate calls
In addition, in the May 2 notice the FCC proposes that VRS applicants provide documentary and other evidence demonstrating an applicant owns and operates facilities associated with TRS call centers, and employs ASL interpreters, on a full or part-time basis, to staff such call centers at the date of the application. The evidence that must be provided is:
- A copy of each deed or lease for each call center operated by the applicant
- A list of individuals or entities that hold at least a 10 percent equity interest in the applicant, have the power to vote 10 percent or more of the securities of the applicant, or exercise de jure or de facto control over the applicant, a description of the applicant’s organizational structure, including the names of its executives, officers, partners, and board of directors, as well as an attestation that no such individual has been convicted of a felony
- A list of all of the names of applicant’s full-time and part-time employees
- Proofs of purchase or license agreements for use of all equipment and/or technologies, including hardware and software, used by the applicant for its call center functions, including but not limited to, automatic call distributor, routing, call setup, mapping, call features, billing for compensation from the TRS fund, and registration
- Copies of employment agreements for all of the provider’s executives and CAs
- Copies of any subcontracting agreements for services not directly essential for the provision of Internet based relay (such as maintenance and transportation services)
- A list of all financing arrangements pertaining to the provision of Internet based relay service, including documentation on loans for equipment, inventory, property, promissory notes, and liens
- Copies of all other agreements associated with the provision of Internet-based relay service
- A list of all sponsorship arrangements (e.g., those providing financial support or in-kind interpreting or personnel service for social activities in exchange for brand marketing), including any associated agreements.
In addition, the FCC proposes the certification process include, at the commission’s discretion, other measures, including on-site visits to the premises of applicants and to assess the merits of certification applications.
Comments can be filed electronically or by paper, but all comments must include the identification number CG Docket No. 10–51 and/or FCC 11–54. The deadline for comments is June 1, 2011, and June 16, 2011 for reply comments.
Comments can be filed electronically using the Internet by accessing the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS), through the FCC’s website. Filers should follow the instructions provided on the website for submitting comments. Parties also may submit an electronic comment by Internet e-mail. To get filing instructions, filers should send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org will be sent in response.
Parties who file by paper must file an original and four copies of each filing. Filings can be sent by hand or messenger delivery, by commercial overnight courier, or by first-class or overnight U.S. Postal Service first-class, Express, or Priority mail (although the FCC continues to experience delays in receiving U.S. Postal Service mail). All filings must be addressed to the Commission’s Secretary, Office of the Secretary, Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th Street, SW., Washington, D.C. 20554.
All hand-delivered or messenger delivered paper filings for the FCC’s Secretary must be delivered to FCC Headquarters at 445 12th St., SW., Room TW–A325, Washington, D.C. 20554. All hand deliveries must be held together with rubber bands or fasteners, and all envelopes must be disposed of before entering the building.
However, commercial mail sent by overnight mail (other than U.S. Postal Service Express Mail and Priority Mail) must be sent to 9300 East Hampton Drive, Capitol Heights, Md. 20743.
In addition, parties must provide a copy of each pleading to the FCC’s duplicating contractor, Best Copy and Printing, Inc., 445 12th Street, SW., Room CY–B402, Washington, D.C. 20554, or via e-mail to email@example.com.