Proposal would dramatically restrict iTRS-provider-provided toll-free numbers

In a move that may at first seem counter-intuitive, the Commission is proposing to restrict the issuance of toll-free telephone numbers affording access to deaf and hard-of-hearing people for use with the Internet-based Telecommunications Relay Service (iTRS). But even though the restrictions might appear to deprive deaf and hard-of-hearing people of a possible benefit, there is method to the FCC’s madness – and it has the support of a number of groups representing deaf and hard-of-hearing people, to boot.

The government subsidizes services which allow people with hearing disabilities to communicate by telephone with persons with or without normal hearing. Those services (generically known as “Telecommunications Relay Service”, or TRS) have been greatly improved by the advent of home computers and now for the most part come in two flavors of Internet-based access – “Video Relay Service” and “IP Relay” – which the FCC refers to collectively as iTRS. (Click here for an overview of TRS generally.)

Prior to 2008, iTRS users (i.e., deaf and hard-of-hearing persons) could be reached on the Internet through IP addresses, proxy or alias phone numbers, or toll-free phone numbers. iTRS providers routinely would give iTRS users a toll-free number which the provider controlled. Most people seeking to reach an iTRS user would dial that toll-free number, and the iTRS provider would route the call to the iTRS user with which the iTRS provider had associated the called number in the provider’s database. But back then, providers didn’t share their databases, which meant that people calling the iTRS user were forced to use the service of the iTRS provider that issued the toll-free number to the iTRS user. Such arrangements ran counter to the FCC’s policy to allow users to pick different iTRS providers without changing equipment.

Additionally, unlike conventional local phone numbers, toll-free numbers confuse public safety officials whose databases associate local numbers with a location when an E911 call is received. Plus, toll-free numbers aren’t as portable from one iTRS provider to another; in fact, since the toll-free numbers were in many, if not most, cases assigned to the provider (which in turn allocated them to iTRS users in its own database) rather than the user, the toll-free numbers were often not portable at all.  And toll-free numbers waste scarce telephone numbering resources.

The Commission’s policy (mandated by Congress) is to give the deaf and hard-of-hearing persons access which is “functionally equivalent” to the access enjoyed by the hearing community. The pre-2008 arrangement obviously did not achieve that goal, so in 2008 the Commission adopted a uniform telephone numbering system for iTRS users.

The 2008 system provides for assignment of conventional ten-digit telephone numbers to iTRS users and creation of a central database mapping each of those numbers to an appropriate IP address. When a caller dials an iTRS user’s number, that number rings at the user’s iTRS provider, the provider refers to the central database, identifies the user, and accesses the user’s computer. The numbers are assigned to the iTRS user – not the provider – and are locally identifiable, portable among different providers, and not limited to any one service.

The Commission anticipated that this system would result in the transition of iTRS users to local telephone numbers from the toll-free numbers they had been relying on.

But that hasn’t happened, mainly because, when iTRS users get their own personal local numbers, iTRS providers have been slipping them a separate toll-free number as well. Toll-free numbers may be attractive to some iTRS users because such numbers allow anyone to place a call to a deaf or hard-of-hearing person from anywhere in the country without paying toll charges. The iTRS provider absorbs the toll-free cost, since it recoups a sufficient amount for its translation services from the government’s TRS Fund. Plus, because of lack of portability of toll-free numbers, the iTRS user tends to stay put with the iTRS provider in order to keep the toll-free number.

In other words, iTRS providers appear to have been using toll-free numbers as a none-too-subtle incentive to keep their iTRS users in place.

But reliance on toll-free numbers is still undesirable for all the public policy reasons identified by the FCC in 2008. Accordingly, the FCC is now proposing to stop the automatic assignment of toll-free numbers. If deaf and hard-of-hearing people want their own toll-free numbers, they can have them – BUT they will have to get them like anyone else does. That is, they will have to order a number from a toll-free provider, have that number mapped to a local telephone number, and pay for the cost of incoming calls. No more free rides from the iTRS providers.

And for sure, if any cost associated with the assignment or use of toll-free numbers has been charged to the TRS Fund, that will end.  The FCC’s proposal also provides that any toll-free numbers not mapped to a local telephone number will be removed from the iTRS directory after a period of time.

These steps, if adopted, will obviously have a disruptive effect for some. In view of the considerable difficulty the FCC has had so far in getting local numbers assigned to all TRS users, the FCC asks for comments on what kind of consumer outreach and transitional time period will be required.

Comments will be due 30 days after publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register, with replies due 15 days later – short time periods that indicate that the FCC pretty well knows where it wants to end up. Check back with for updates as to the comment deadlines.