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December 10, 2004

FCC Adds Video Relay Services to State

I am pleased to be included in the RID VIEWS issue devoted to technology and telecommunications. We in the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) are the FCC's primary link to telecommunications consumers. In addition to developing public policy, we address all types of consumer-related matters from answering questions and responding to consumer complaints to distributing materials.

CGB acts as a bridge to connect the four key groups vital to ensuring excellent consumer service. These are the FCC, the states, the telecommunications industry, and, of course, consumers themselves. When these four groups work together to share information and resolve concerns, our common goal - consumer satisfaction - will be achieved.

Throughout the years, sign language interpreters have been a vital link in our work with the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. And now, sign language interpreters are available to users of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS). In our Report and Order released in March 2000, we expanded our definition of relay to include Video Relay Service (VRS). Users of VRS must, of course, have equipment that allows them to send their image to the Relay Center. Once connected, a Deaf caller can simply sign a message to the sign language interpreter, who conveys it to the person called. That person, in turn, can reply and the interpreter will transmit the message in sign language back to the Deaf caller.

It is important to note the difference between VRI (Video Relay Interpreting) and VRS. In a typical VRI environment, both Deaf and hearing consumers are in the same room but the interpreter is in a remote location. With VRS, the Deaf and hearing consumers are in different locations and are linked through an interpreter provided through the TRS. While both VRI and VRS depend upon a telecommunications link, VRS is used specifically to indicate the service provided through TRS and therefore should not be confused with VRI.

The FCC is vitally aware of the issues surrounding interpreter quality and has noted in its rules that TRS Centers must use qualified interpreters as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice guidelines. In short, a qualified interpreter is one who "is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary." Even though VRS services are not yet mandatory for all TRS Centers, the FCC is encouraging its inclusion by permitting all VRS calls, whether intrastate or interstate, to be funded through the interstate TRS Fund.

This is an important financial inducement that brings a benefit to both the providers and consumers. As you may know, each state and U.S. territory has its own TRS Center. In general, funding for calls that take place within one state comes from revenue collected within the state. However, calls that cross state lines are paid for from a fund that represents contributions from all telecommunication subscribers nationwide. Since there are only a few TRS providers currently including VRS as a permanent part of their service options, allowing reimbursement from the interstate fund for all calls is one way to encourage increased use and growth of VRS service. In this way, both the costs and the benefits can be share by all Americans.

Confidentiality is another important factor that we have addressed. Unlike standard TTY calls, VRS callers will be able to see the TRS interpreter and, likewise, the TRS interpreter will be able to see the VRS caller. There is, therefore, no way to remain totally anonymous. Consequently, in addition to strictures placed on interpreters by the RID Code of Ethics, we have included interpreters under the same confidentiality rules that cover TRS communications assistants. These rules state that communications assistants are "prohibited from disclosing the content of any relayed conversation."

In this world of constantly changing technology, the FCC is proud to be in the forefront in assuring that everyone, including Deaf and hard of hearing consumers, receives the best that telecommunications systems can offer. We welcome input from our consumers and hope that you will feel free to give us a call, write us a letter, or send us an e-mail or fax. We are here for you - the consumer.

To find out more about the FCC or VRS, please visit our website at www.fcc.gov.

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