FCC Establishes Registration Grace Period for VRS and IP CTS; Proposes Further Changes to VRS Regulations
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:
- Cap on At-Home VRS Call Handling – To address the reported shortage of qualified ASL interpreters, the NPRM proposes to permanently raise the permitted percentage of a VRS provider’s monthly minutes that may be handled by CAs working at home from 50% to 80%. The Commission observed that like many other professionals, VRS CAs have become accustomed to working from home and are reluctant to return to call centers despite reduced public health risks, and seeks comment on this conclusion. The FCC further specifically seeks comment on, among other considerations, the costs, risks, and benefits of the proposed cap increase; the resulting impact on the actual percentage of at-home CAs; factors other than the pandemic considered by providers in deciding whether to maintain or increase reliance on at-home CAs; the effect of the cap increase on the pool of available CAs; cost savings resulting from at-home VRS handling; and the impact of at-home VRS call handling on the quality of ASL interpretation. The FCC also wants quantitative data on the extent to which increasing the percentage of at-home CAs has resulted in or will result in a reduction in call center overhead costs over the costs of establishing and maintaining at-home workstations.
- Experience Requirements for At-Home CAs– FCC rules currently require VRS CAs to have at least three years of interpreting experience. The FCC proposes to eliminate this requirement. Alternatively, the Commission is open to reforming the experience requirement, e.g., reducing the experience period to one or two years, or mandating a minimum level of call center interpreting experience before a CA may take calls from home. The NPRM seeks comment on this issue, and specifically asks how the Commission should balance the need for effective interpretation skills with expanding provider access to available interpreters.
- Other At-Home VRS Call Handling Rules– The NPRM broadly seeks comment on “whether other changes should be made in the at-home VRS call-handling rules, based on experience over the last two years. Commenters should identify any current rule that they think should be modified, explain in detail why such modifications would advance the purposes of [the TRS statute], and provide factual support for their recommendations based on actual experience.”
- Contracting for CAs– The FCC proposes to allow VRS providers to contract for interpretation services for up to 30% of their monthly call minutes. VRS providers would continue to be prohibited from contracting for call center functions, such as call distribution, routing, setup, mapping, features, billing, or registration. The NPRM seeks comment on this change, whether it would provide sufficient flexibility to manage fluctuations in the available pool of qualified ASL interpreters, and the costs and benefits of authorizing VRS providers to contract for interpretation services from uncertified entities. Additionally, should organizations contracting with a VRS provider for interpretation services be required to register with the FCC and agree to direct Commission oversight, including, but not limited to, audits and inspections of records?
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.