On June 30, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or the “Commission”) released an order and notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) collectively, the “Order” — updating the Commission’s regulations governing Video Relay Service (“VRS”) and Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (“IP CTS”), and proposing additional regulatory changes under these telecommunications relay service (“TRS”) programs. The adopted changes give new VRS and IP CTS users, as well as existing users of these services wishing to switch providers, a two-week grace period to use these services pending verification of their identity and eligibility for the services. The NPRM changes, if adopted, would (1) increase from 50% to 80% the portion of monthly VRS minutes that may be handled by communications assistants (“CAs”) working from home, (2) eliminate or modify the requirement that to work at home, a VRS CA must have at least three years of American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpreting experience, (3) allow VRS providers to use contract CAs for up to 30% of their monthly call minutes, and (4) allow Interstate TRS Fund compensation of calls placed by registered VRS users to the United States from outside the country, for up to one year after leaving the country, as long as the provider receives proper notice from the traveling user.
The deadline to file public comments on the proposed rules will be 30 days after publication of the Order in the Federal Register — likely, sometime in mid-August. Reply comments will be due 30 days later. A brief summary of the adopted and proposed changes follows.
TRS is an accommodation that enables people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate over the phone in ways that are functionally equivalent to traditional voice calls. VRS allows persons with hearing or speech disabilities who use American Sign Language to use video equipment to communicate with voice telephone users. IP CTS permits the user to simultaneously listen to other callers and read the captions of what they are saying. It is designed for persons with hearing loss who can speak and have some residual hearing.
As VRS and IP CTS became increasingly popular, so did misuse of these services. In response, the FCC adopted various regulations aimed at safeguarding the integrity of these services, including restrictions on VRS provider arrangements with CAs. Over time, the continued need for these restrictions diminished as technological developments made it easier for the Commission to crack down on unauthorized uses of TRS. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that CAs can work productively in compliance with the Commission’s confidentiality requirements and other obligations from at-home work stations, and that their employers can supervised them adequately remotely. Accordingly, FCC rules have been gradually relaxed to reflect these changes. The Order continues this trend.
Registration Grace Period for VRS and IP CTS
It has long been well-settled that VRS and IP CTS providers may not seek TRS Fund compensation for use of these services by unregistered consumers. Thus, users did not gain access to the services until they completed the registration process, which includes verification of their qualifying disability and collecting and uploading certain required personal information to the TRS User Registration Database (“URD”). The Order amends these usage restrictions to allow VRS and IP CTS providers to receive compensation for providing service to new and porting-in customers for up to two weeks after initial submission of the consumer’s registration data to the TRS URD, provided that the consumer’s identity is verified by the URD administrator within that period.
According to the Order, a two-week grace period will enhance the availability and efficiency of TRS. It is also expected to “enhance the beneficial effects of competition among providers.” Finally, the Commission concluded that the grace period will not defraud the TRS Fund, because compensation for calls made during the grace period will be disbursed only if and after the new user’s eligibility is verified.
Relaxation of Restrictions on VRS Provider Arrangements with Communications Assistants and Contractors
The NPRM proposes to reduce or abolish a number of apparently no longer necessary limitations on VRS provider relations with CAs and contractors:
International Calling Restrictions
The NPRM proposes to make it easier for U.S. residents to make VRS calls from abroad. The proposed change would clarify that calls originating from foreign IP addresses may be compensated if placed within one year after the user leaves the U.S., provided that the user notifies their default provider of their travel plans prior to initiating their first call from outside the country. The notice would need to include the specific regions of travel, the date of departure from the U.S., and an approximate date of return to the U.S.
The FCC seeks comment on this proposal. The Commission seems particularly concerned if this change, combined with existing TRS URD rules and other fraud prevention measures, would sufficiently protect the TRS Fund from waste, fraud, and abuse. The FCC also wants input on whether one year is long enough to, for example, cover students studying abroad, employees on temporary international work assignments, or individuals on extended travel.
The NPRM does propose an exception for military and civilian federal government personnel, with modified notification obligations to VRS providers.
Contact Us for Help
The recent regulatory TRS developments, especially the proposed updates to VRS at-home call handling and contracting restrictions, could have sweeping (and perhaps unexpected) practical consequences on the operations of VRS providers. With the FCC poised to streamline consumer access to these services, it is imperative that relay providers keep up with the changes to stay ahead of the competition. This is your opportunity to weigh in on the proposed rules, addressing any concerns or considerations of which the FCC may be unaware.
Our experienced attorneys can help your company prepare and file compelling public comments that can shape the direction in which these rules evolve. If you have any questions about the proposed changes or would like help with filing comments, please contact Michal J. Nowicki, Esq., at (703) 714-1311 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. Nowicki routinely counsels TRS providers on compliance with applicable FCC regulations. He also prepares FCC certification applications for new providers who wish to be compensated from the TRS Fund.