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Saving VRS

May 19, 2010


Video Relay Service (VRS) enables persons who use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with voice telephone users through video equipment, rather than through typed text (like the old TTY). Videoconferencing equipment, videophone, or computer and webcam links the VRS user with an interpreter/operator - called a "Communications Assistant" (CA) - so that the deaf user and the CA can converse with each other in sign language and via voice to the hearing participant. VRS has become enormously popular.
Unfortunately, high rates (over $6 per minute) for VRS interpreting led to massive fraud and arrests in 2009.
Recent proposals to lower the rates significantly have generated protests from the largest VRS service providers.
I would like to highlight that the following proposals are my own personal opinion. I consult on behalf of a sign language interpreting agency, but not for any VRS providers.
Modest suggestion for reforming Video Relay Services (VRS):
1. Disconnect the telecommunications/technical/bandwidth section of VRS from the sign language interpreters.
To become a licensed VRS provider, a service provider must supply not only the technical side but also hire sign language interpreters. The types of businesses have nothing in common and should be licensed and paid separately.
Key telecommunications companies (ATT, Sprint, Verizon) ought to be allowed to bid on providing the telecommunications piece of VRS calls without worrying about employing ASL interpreters.
2. Centralize the assignment of 10 digit phone numbers for deaf consumers.
As it stands at this time, 10 digit numbers are assigned by the default VRS service provider who originally signed up a deaf individual for VRS service. Unless the deaf caller has the technical savvy to adjust the equipment, any calls he or she makes is handled by the default provider.
By giving away free, simple videoconferencing equipment, SorensonVRS has captured about 70% of all VRS calls. Porting a 10 digit number to another default provider is possible but seldom done.Emergency calls - e911 - are now the responsibility of the individual VRS service providers. I would transfer this to a central organization or to the telco who wins the technological bid for VRS.
Permitting all calls to a 10 digit number to be routed to a particular default provider is the core reason for VRS fraud.
3. Let sign language interpreting agencies bid on providing just ASL interpreters.
Communication Assistants (CAs) are the sign language interpreters who use video to communicate with deaf callers and who voice to hearing callers over standard telephone lines.
In late 2009, fraud among interpreter subcontractors for VRS service providers nearly destroyed Video Relay Services for the deaf. The FBI arrested a number of interpreters in 9 states who were inflating VRS minutes and cheating the TRS fund out of millions of dollars.
4. Least cost routing.
Instead of having calls directed to the default provider, I would have all calls to 10 digit numbers registered to the deaf routed through a central switch.
Sign language interpreting agencies would then submit bids to the FCC for providing CAs. Calls would be routed to the agency with the lowest bid who had an interpreter available to take the call.
At this point, VRS service providers are compensated per minute of interpreting. Proposals for new, lesser rates have brought statements that the new rates will drive providers into insolvency.
By having the service providers bid on what it costs them to handle VRS calls - at a rate and with a profit they would be able to agree to - the clash over rates would fade away.
5. NAD/RID Certification for CAs.
As it stands now, the FCC allows VRS providers to determine the qualifications of their interpreters. This allowed criminal agencies to hire unqualified interpreters to process "run calls" and bilk the government.
Everyone would be better served if each CA met some minimum level of competence in ASL, and had something to lose if they engaged in fraud.
The National Association for the Deaf (NAD) and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) have certification tests in place. CA certification could be easily added.Every CA would have his or her own identification number. Complaints or fraud could then be tracked to the exact person accountable. Bad interpreters can be weeded out of the system.
Pass laws to permit the FCC watchdogs to observe random calls, much like wiretapping regulations for police.
Privacy is a serious concern. Attention would have to be taken not to record genuine conversations. Monitoring could be restricted to 30 or 60 seconds except when suspicious activity is present.
However, fraud is tough to catch or stop if calls can't be checked at random.
Conclusion:
Market forces through least cost routing offer a viable system to lessen the cost of VRS calls to the government, maximize efficiency in the sign language agencies, and hold the rates at a level that enables VRS service providers to survive.
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Charles Lamm is a retired attorney now serving as a legal/technical consultant for Accessible Communication for the Deaf (ACD) in Sunrise, Florida - ACDVRI - News for ASL Interpreters

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