May 5, 2011 - 3:11 pm

For a decade, thousands of people with hearing and speech disabilities, and their hearing friends, colleagues and families, have come to rely on video relay service to communicate with each other.

VRS enables individuals who use American Sign Language to make and receive “telephone” calls through a sign language interpreter using a broadband connection that enables both video and voice communications. The interpreter voices what the ASL user signs and interprets into sign language what the hearing person responds in voice. VRS providers receive compensation from a fund set up by the FCC called the Interstate TRS Fund into which all common carriers and interconnected VoIP providers contribute via fees they collect from their users.

Although the VRS program has proven widely popular and has been a great success in improving the ability of individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate, it has also been subject to costly, and often illegal, problems of fraud and abuse that have threatened its long-term viability. Over the past year, the Federal Communications Commission has undertaken extensive efforts to reform the VRS program to ensure that it is efficiently managed, that providers comply with the law, and that as a result it remains a fully viable service for its users. For example, the FCC released an order on April 6 (PDF) putting into place a number of rules to eliminate VRS fraud. In the coming months, the Commission also plans to propose other necessary rule changes – including the ways in which VRS providers are compensated – based on a fresh look at the fundamental structure of the VRS program that started with a Notice of Inquiry issued in June 2010.

The current compensation regime is based solely on a per minute rate. By July 1 of each year, the Commission is required to set new VRS rates to be paid to VRS providers for the following 12 months. As we are still formulating changes to the ways in which providers get compensated and implementing other rules governing the provision of VRS, instead of spending time and resources to set new rates under the existing regime, which would quickly become outdated, we have proposed extending the current VRS rates for a short period of time until we complete the VRS Structural Reform Proceeding. Although this proposal (PDF) will allow us to extend the current rates until June 2012, the Commission plans to have new rules in place before the end of this year.

VRS is an essential service and the FCC is committed to ensuring that it remains effective, efficient, and sustainable in the future. We welcome your thoughts and comments on the VRS program and how the FCC can continue to support it.