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 consumer with an interpreter/operator - called a "Communications Assistant" (CA) - so that the deaf client and the CA can converse with each other in sign language and by means of voice to the hearing party. VRS has become tremendously popular.
Unfortunately, high rates (over $6 per minute) for VRS interpreting led to massive fraud and arrests in 2009.
Large VRS service providers have been up in arms over the latest rate proposals.
I would like to stress that the following proposals are my own individual opinion. I consult on behalf of a sign language interpreting agency, but not for any VRS companies.
Modest proposition for reforming Video Relay Services (VRS):
1. Split 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 telcos (ATT, Sprint, Verizon) ought to be able to bid on providing the telecommunications piece of VRS calls without worrying about hiring ASL interpreters.
2. Centralize the assignment of 10 digit phone numbers for deaf consumers.
As it stands at this moment, 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 adapt the equipment, any calls he or she makes is handled through the default provider.
SorensonVRS has taken about 70% of the VRS market by aggressively promoting VRS and by giving away their VP-200, a simple but effective videoconferencing device. Switching providers is possible but cumbersome.
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 technical contract for VRS.
Permitting all calls to a 10 digit number to be directed to a specific 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, scams involving interpreter subcontractors for VRS service providers nearly ruined Video Relay Services for the deaf. The FBI arrested a number of interpreters in 9 states who were inflating VRS minutes and bilking the TRS trust out of millions of dollars.
4. Least cost routing.
Instead of having calls routed 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 tender 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 time, VRS service providers are paid for each minute of interpreting. Proposals for new, lesser rates have produced statements that the new rates will drive providers into bankruptcy.
By having the service providers bid on what it costs them to carry out VRS calls - at a cost and with a profit they would be able to accept - the clash over rates would vanish.
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 minimal 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. Tests for CAs could easily be devised.
Every CA would have his or her own identification number. Complaints or fraud could then be tracked to the exact person responsible. Bad interpreters can be weeded out of the system.
Pass legislation to permit the FCC watchdogs to scrutinize random phone calls, much like wiretapping rules for police.
Privacy is a serious concern. Care 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.
On the other hand, fraud is hard to catch or prevent if calls can not be checked at random.
Market forces via least cost routing provide a viable system to lessen the cost of VRS calls to the government, increase efficiency in the sign language agencies, and keep the rates at a point that enables VRS service providers to survive.
Charles Lamm is a retired attorney now serving as a legal/technical consultant for <a href="http://acdterps.com">Accessible Communication for the Deaf</a> (ACD) in Sunrise, Florida - <a href="http://acdvri.com">ACDVRI</a> - <a href="http://acdsignnews.com">News for ASL Interpreters</a>
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