Commission adopts certification requirements for providers, limits on toll-free numbers for users

In an effort to reduce unnecessary costs while assuring that deaf and hard-of-hearing people will still enjoy essentially the same access to telecommunications services as everybody else, the Commission has adopted several changes to the rules governing Internet Telecommunications Relay Services (iTRS).

iTRS is the short-hand term for a couple of related services – Video Relay Service and IP Relay – that permit deaf and hard-of-hearing folks to communicate by telephone, over the Internet, with persons with or without normal hearing. iTRS provide those folks a modern alternative to the crude “TTY” typewriter-like keyboards through which they previously interconnected with the phone system. The basic concept is that, with inexpensive webcams and broadband connections, deaf/hard-of-hearing users can access the services of interpreters who can not only type words but also speak with sound to hearing persons and with American Sign Language to deaf persons. (Want to know more about iTRS? Check out the FCC’s information page on the subject.)

The cost of providing iTRS service is picked up by federal and state governments (which in turn get the funds by including a surcharge on everybody’s telephone bill). With annual costs running close to $740 million, there’s a boatload of money at stake – and, needless to say, with opportunities to game the system in great supply, temptation abounds.

Until now, that is – if the FCC has its way.

Providing deaf and hard-of-hearing persons with telephone service comparable to the general public will likely always require some subsidy, of course. But the Commission is committed to removing incentives that unnecessarily drive up costs, so it is seeking to impose more direct control on iTRS providers.

The government pays providers of video interpreting services somewhere in the range of five to six dollars a minute, depending on the provider’s annual volume. Payment by the minute creates an incentive to stimulate minutes of use (i.e., volume) – and thereby increase compensation – by lengthening calls and encouraging users to make more calls. In an effort to curb iTRS abuse at the provider level, the FCC has adopted rules requiring all iTRS providers to: (a) be certified by the Commission; (b) operate their own essential facilities; and (c) employ their own staff of interpreters. They must also document to the FCC their ability to comply with various iTRS requirements. The FCC even plans to inspect facilities during the certification process and from time to time thereafter. These changes will give the FCC more ability to supervise iTRS providers and to scrutinize the costs they submit as a basis for setting rates.

While iTRS providers may lease automatic call distribution (ACD) platforms, the equipment must be located on the providers’ own premises and staffed by the providers’ own employees. Oh yeah, and the FCC wants to see a copy of the lease – not just to make sure that it exists, but to check out some of its terms. For instance, compensation under such a lease may not be based on traffic volume, capacity used, or revenue sharing. iTRS providers may sub-contract services, but only to other certified providers, thereby eliminating sub-contracting as a way to escape regulatory supervision.

To obtain certification, iTRS providers will have to disclose the names of their owners (at least those with ownership interests of 10% or greater), officers and directors and report the number of their full- and part-time employees. Employees may not receive salary or other benefits based on the volume of traffic they handle. Since a primary source of provider abuse involves the making of compensable calls supposedly for “marketing” and “outreach”, providers will now have to report any agreements they make for sponsorships or marketing to iTRS users. They must report any substantial changes in their technology or equipment, file an annual report, and renew their certification every five years. Certifications may not be transferred to an entity that is not itself certified. Service interruptions of over 30 minutes must be reported to the FCC, and authority for planned interruptions must be sought 60 days in advance, with appropriate notice to consumers.

Obviously, the Commission is looking to make it considerably tougher for an iTRS provider to inflate claims for compensation, a practice that, in the view of some, rises to the level of outright bilking of the government.

The new rules will not apply to IP relay and IP CTS providers. Those two sub-groups of providers get paid in the range of only a dollar and change per minute, and there has been no record of significant abuse among them. Additionally, it will no longer be necessary for any iTRS provider to be a common carrier to obtain certification, since there is evidence that non-carriers are fully capable of providing the service.

What’s the timeline for complying with the new certification requirements?

If you’re an iTRS provider receiving compensation from the TRS Fund but you’re not currently certified, you will have to apply for certification within 30 days after OMB approval of the new rules. Existing holders of certifications that have expired or are about to expire were previously given an extension until November 4, 2011, and must apply for re-certification by October 5, 2011 (if the new rules are effective by then) to avoid risk of service interruption.

To emphasize that it means business, the FCC will require certification applications to be supported by a sworn declaration, under penalty of perjury, from a senior executive officer, the intent apparently being to allow the enforcement noose to be placed on a real live neck if iTRS providers do not toe the line.

In addition to the new limitations being imposed directly on iTRS providers, the Commission has, in a separate order, adopted a number of changes intended to align the use of local and toll free numbers by iTRS users more closely with the way that hearing users use such numbers. We wrote about those changes when the Commission proposed them about a year ago. The Commission has now adopted those proposals.

Basically, the FCC wants to end the assignment of free “800” numbers to iTRS users, which have been used to lock customers into using one service provider instead of allowing callers to pick and choose providers as competitive service offerings change.   As far as the Commission is concerned, iTRS users should have the same access to both regular and toll-free telephone numbers that everyone else has. That means that iTRS users can still have toll-free numbers if they like, but they’ll have to get those numbers from the same companies that provide them to the public at large, subject to whatever fees may be involved.

Each toll-free number must be mapped to a normal number and be portable from one carrier to another; numbers that aren’t so mapped must be removed from directories. While no automatic exception was created for locations where an iTRS provider cannot obtain a regular number that is local to its customer, the Commission did indicate that it was open to considering individual hardship situations on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to iTRS generally, the FCC is in a bit of a tough spot. The Commission wants to assure people with hearing and speech impairments access to new technology that can improve their lives and their interaction with society at large. The government has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to that end. But that kind of cash screams “come on down” to a substantial universe of sharp operators who, while providing the desired service, have also seized on an opportunity to line their own pockets. The FCC’s challenge is (a) to create a regulatory environment that encourages the hearing- and speech-impaired to take advantage of the latest and greatest telecommunications technology while (b) not allowing that environment to open the till for entrepreneurs looking to grab government money for services that can and should cost far less.