FCC Certification Process for Video Relay Service Providers Needs Review

According to Title IV of the Americans with Disability Act, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is required to provide deaf and hard of hearing citizens with Telecommunication Relay Services (TRS), in the most efficient manner possible. In long distance conversations between two deaf people or a hearing and deaf person, this used to be provided through the use of a TTY (also called a TDD, or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf). A TTY was used in a conversation between a hearing and deaf person with the help of a sign language interpreter, who would type the message a hearing person said to the deaf person through the TTY, and then relay the message typed back by the deaf person to the hearing caller. The 21st Century version has seen the TTY replaced with a new industry standard: Video Relay Service (VRS). With VRS, a hearing person calls a VRS provider, who then uses the internet to connect with a deaf person through a live-streaming video, that way connecting the two parties while translating the conversation between English and American Sign Language. These services are offered free to users, with the costs being covered by the Interstate TRS fund (Fund), amassed by collecting a portion of revenues from telecommunications companies throughout the United State.

The oversight for this fund is provided by the FCC, with VRS providers compensated for every minute of relay services rendered. The current rate for compensation is set between $3 to $6 per minute, and as some VRS companies are able to provide over 500,000 minutes of VRS per month, the amount of money involved in this industry is significant. Despite this large amount of money, the oversight provided by the FCC came under scrutiny recently after reports surfaced that the system for reimbursement had been corrupted.

In response to the reports of some providers using “dummy callers” to up the amount of VRS minutes that provider could report to the FCC for reimbursement, in July of this year the FCC created new certification standards for becoming a provider of VRS. The FCC stated that the goal of the new requirements were to detect and prevent fraud and abuse while giving the FCC more oversight of the VRS system to ensure providers were qualified. Among these new standards for receiving reimbursement through the fund are the requirements that each provider:

1) operate their own call centers and employ their own Communication Assistants (defined by the FCC as qualified sign language interpreters);

2) answer 80% of their VRS calls within 120 seconds;

3) must offer 24/7 VRS access; and

4) provide each VRS user with a unique 10-digit number, so that the VRS are able to make emergency calls

The new certification requirements also made the FCC the sole body that is capable of finding a VRS provider capable of receiving reimbursement from the Fund (previously states had been able to grant licenses for VRS providers), and made it necessary for each and every company providing VRS prior to these certification adjustments to reapply for certification.

While these requirements may seem necessary, in light of the recent corruption uncovered in the industry, a closer analysis indicates these certification requirements could prove to cause more problems than it solved. This is so for three reasons: first, the new requirements have proven overly burdensome for a majority of VRS providers; second, these requirements could lead to supplement the creation of a detrimental monopoly in the VRS industry; and lastly, the new requirements make NO quality assurance requirements for the type of VRS interpreters a provider employs.

The requirements these new certification standards establish has proven too burdensome for many of the prior VRS providers. As many VRS providers previously offered their services through subcontractors, the FCC requirement that all VRS systems and employees must be completely owned by a provider has cut the current number of providers from over 30 to less than 10. Despite arguments from the preeminent deaf university in the country that this requirement will limit the ability of deaf and hard of hearing citizens to gain access to VRS providers, the FCC has refused to edit this requirement.

Through these burdensome requirements, the amount of real competition that exists among the limited providers of VRS that remain is questionable. Reports indicate that one VRS provider, Sorenson, controls as much as 80% of the market share of the industry. There is no argument that Sorenson, should this market power exist, is able to use this power to their advantage in such a way as to hurt consumers.  Furthermore, the normal fear of monopolization may not exist in this scenario, as the FCC setting the rate for reimbursement through the Fund doesn’t allow Sorenson to independently control the cost of providing VRS.

The new certification requirements, however, lack any sort of quality assurance requirements for the sign language interpreters employed by these VRS providers, a problem for numerous reasons. Without significant competition in the VRS market, providers may have an incentive to hire less qualified (and therefore cheaper) interpreting services in order to extract the largest profit possible. Currently, there are no federal certification requirements for becoming a sign language interpreter. Instead, providers are given the task of determining who is qualified to work as a sign language interpreter during VRS. Currently Sorenson’s hiring standards, shared by other providers in the industry, give the following as accepting qualifications:

“NAD level IV/V; or a RID CI, CT, CI/CT, CSC; or NIC, NIC Advanced, NIC Master; or hold a state interpreter certificate at the Intermediate or Master Certificate skill levels or have the professional interpreting experience to become a Sorenson VRS interpreter, subject to skill set verification and screening.”

A close reading of this standard indicates that companies can hire interpreters that hold only a “state interpreter certificate”, or that “have the professional interpreting experience to become a Sorenson VRS interpreter.” While the first standard may sound sufficient, many states do not have any specified qualification requirements for providing sign language services at all. Furthermore, the second standard indicates that companies such as Sorenson “credential” their own interpreters. This is not to say that interpreters employed by the limited number of providers acceptable under the current FCC certification requirements aren’t qualified; it simply indicates there is nothing currently in place within the FCC that allows for an sort of quality assurance.

This step taken by the FCC to cut down on fraud and abuse of the VRS provider system is assuredly laudable. However, the hurdles created by these requirements for current VRS providers and potential future providers to enter the industry are so high that meaningful competition in the market might have been compromised. If the requirements have limited the amount of VRS providers to the point where meaningful competition does not exist, the ability of consumer demand to influence these providers to employ qualified sign language interpreters may be nonexistent. Finally, if the FCC is truly committed to ensuring VRS providers are “qualified”, the agency needs to address the new certification procedure’s lack of any requirements for providers to employ sign language interpreters with a certain qualification level.


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