FCC Extends Hearing- and Speech-Impaired Access Requirements (TRS) to VoIP Services
On May 31, 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to extend its Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) requirements, which oblige telecommunications service providers and manufacturers to afford persons with hearing- and speech-impaired disabilities reasonable access to telephone services and equipment. The Order imposes those same requirements on “interconnected” [to the public switched network] Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers and manufacturers of VoIP equipment. VoIP providers will also be required to offer abbreviated “711” dialing to access these services and contribute to TRS funding. The text of the FCC’s Order has not yet been released, and so the specific details and effective date of these new VoIP regulations are not yet known. We will issue further advice when those details are released.
The objective of the TRS rules is to provide telecommunications services to disabled persons “functionally equivalent” to those enjoyed by persons without disabilities. The services mandated under the FCC’s TRS rules (47 C.F.R. §§ 64.601-64.605), currently designed to serve hearing and speech-impaired persons, comprise seven categories, the first four of which are mandatory for telecommunications providers and, henceforth, VoIP providers and equipment manufacturers:
- Text-to-Voice (TTY): the most basic type, where a TRS calling party calls an access number and types a message on a special phone keyboard, and a dedicated operator (the “Communications Assistant” (CA)) reads the message to the called party;
- Voice Carry Over (VCO): wherein a hearing-impaired person speaks directly to the called party, but receives responses in text form through the CA;
- Hearing Carry Over (HCO): wherein a speech-impaired person keyboards an outgoing TTY message but hears the response directly from the called party;
- Spanish Relay Services (SRS): interstate TRS in Spanish;
- Speech-to-Speech Relay (STS): enabling a speech impaired person to speak to a CA who is specially trained in speech disorders and so can “translate” the voice message to the called party, without the use of TTY;
- Video Relay Service (VRS): enabling those who use sign language to “sign” to a CA via a video link (typically broadband Internet), who then speaks the signed message to the other party; and
- IP Relay: TRS using a computer, PDA or like device rather than a TTY keyboard.
Providers must offer the mandatory services, and must (unless granted a waiver) adhere to various “mandatory minimum” operational, technical and functional standards set forth in Section 64.604 of the FCC’s rules.
Importantly, these new rules apparently include funding obligations. Therefore, all affected providers must contribute a percentage of their interstate gross end-user revenues into the Interstate TRS Fund, which is administered by USAC in a very similar way to the Universal Service Fund (USF). Such entities are also eligible for compensation from the Interstate TRS Fund for both the mandatory and non-mandatory services they provide.
This action is the latest in a series in which the Commission has gradually imposed various “telephone-type” public safety, consumer protection and law enforcement-related regulations on VoIP services, even as it declines to decide whether VoIP services are “telecommunications” subject to traditional FCC regulation. The Commission had already imposed 911/E911, universal service, CALEA (wiretapping) and CPNI (subscriber privacy) obligations on VoIP services. As FCC Chairman Kevin Martin stated yesterday, “VoIP services are increasingly being marketed and used as a substitute for traditional landline phones. While technologies will continue to evolve, core social goals in the Act regarding the provision of communications services to all remain unchanged.” Indeed, he added that the Commission will “continue to evaluate” the applicability of other telephone-type obligations to VoIP, including: “numbering. . . and consumer protection issues (service discontinuance notifications, slamming, and billing issues, etc). Chairman Martin stated that he hoped that "by addressing these obligations, the Commission will be able to continue to protect the interests of consumers and establish a competitively neutral playing field for competing services.” VoIP providers and equipment manufacturers thus may expect additional FCC regulation in the future.