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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Video Relay Service: Program Funding and Reform

Patricia Moloney Figliola
Specialist in Internet and Telecommunications Policy

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates a number of disability-related telecommunications services, including video relay service (VRS). VRS allows persons with hearing disabilities, using American Sign Language (ASL), to communicate with voice telephone users through video equipment, rather than through typed text. VRS has quickly become a very popular service, as it offers several features not available with the text-based telecommunications relay service (TRS).

In June 2010, the FCC began a comprehensive review of the rates, structure, and practices of the VRS program. The goal of the review is to reform the VRS program, which had long been burdened by waste, fraud, and abuse, and by compensation rates that had become inflated above actual cost. The FCC issued its updated VRS Program rules in June 2013. The new rules initiate fundamental restructuring of the program to support innovation and competition, drive down ratepayer and provider costs, eliminate incentives for waste, and further protect consumers, including—

  • ensuring that VRS users can easily select their provider of choice by promoting the development of voluntary, consensus interoperability and portability standards; 
  • enabling consumers to use off-the-shelf tablets and smart phones for any provider’s VRS services by developing and deploying a VRS application to work with these devices, based on the consensus standards; 
  • creating a centralized TRS User Registration Database to combat fraud, waste, and abuse by ensuring VRS user eligibility; 
  • encouraging competition and innovation in VRS call handling services—such as ASL interpretation—by contracting with a neutral third party to build, operate, and maintain a platform for communications services; and 
  • spurring research and development on VRS services by entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Science Foundation. 
In addition, the new rules transition VRS compensation rates toward actual costs over the next four years, initiating a step-by-step transition from existing tiered TRS Fund compensation rates toward a unitary, market-based compensation rate.

Congressional interest in the VRS Program is two-fold: eliminating fraud and abuse in the program and maintaining the usefulness of the program for users. Controversy has arisen over the latest proposals for change to the program being considered by the FCC. The FCC believes that rate structure changes are needed to reduce fraud and better manage the VRS program, but the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is concerned that funding cuts will result in fewer and lessqualified ASL interpreters. Additionally, the FCC has proposed changing the technologies used to operate and use the system, but the community is concerned that changes in technology will decrease the quality of the system as it is now and also potentially pose challenges to some users.

Date of Report: October 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: R42830
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