Despite unprecedented turmoil, America’s communications capabilities have thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is thanks in part to the brilliant performance of our advanced broadband networks and consumers’ embrace of cutting-edge technology that has enabled them to work and learn remotely.
Yet even as Congress debates solutions to expand broadband access to those lacking it due to cost or location, Americans who are deaf or have a hearing loss have not received similar attention or assistance. Now is the perfect time for Congress to pursue — either directly or indirectly — appropriate reforms, including addressing a broken compensation mechanism for disabilities services.
According to the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, more than 38 million individuals in our nation have some type of hearing difficulty ranging from partial to total loss. These numbers are growing. More and more Americans have experienced hearing-disruptive events, including our heroic veterans who served in recent wars. Combined with those who have genetic hearing loss, the number of Americans facing day-to-day life with hearing challenges, especially in their ability to communicate with others, is higher than ever before.
Technology can — and should — serve as the great equalizer. The most prominent telecommunications service for the hearing impaired is the decades-old Video Relay Service, which allows business or personal video calls using an intermediary sign-language interpreter. Once thought of as an expensive, luxury add-on, I have personally seen the importance and splendor of VRS communications, with its ease of use for native signers and the ability to share facial expressions.
But all is not right with VRS. While its users love the service, and it has grown to support the needs of hundreds of thousands of users through funding paid for by fees on all telecommunications consumers, the program has been hampered by various efforts to control costs and promote artificial competition. Although well-intentioned, several solutions — from rate freezes to expense micromanagement to tiered rates — have hindered providers’ ability to serve existing users.
While I do not engage in or advocate for any Federal Communications Commission proceeding, congressional oversight would expose how squeezing providers’ funding stream has greatly degraded the efforts of those trying to deliver these critical services. VRS providers have been forced to curtail outreach efforts or faced financial difficulties and some have even exited the market altogether.
On a larger scale, the VRS rate-of-return compensation structure is preventing investments in VRS enhancements to respond to the changing technological world. Consider the ways in which Americans have communicated during the pandemic: Zoom, Teams, Chime, WebEx, etc. These popular technologies have proven immensely useful for keeping businesses and families connected. However, these applications are not always fully technically compatible with VRS, making it more difficult for the hearing impaired to fully participate in work meetings or family events. Adding flexibility to the existing VRS compensation structure, rather than implementing specific technical mandates on anyone, would make sure that these communications services keep pace with those designed for people who are not hearing impaired.
Congressional oversight also could ensure that the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it pertains to hearing-related technologies, is being fully implemented. The ADA requires that the hearing impaired have access to “functionally equivalent” communications services — i.e., services that are on par with a hearing person’s telephone services. The pandemic has exposed a chasm between services provided to the general public and those available to the hearing-impaired community, which would seem to run counter to the statute.
There are other ways Congress can help. First, it can invest the necessary funds, like it is doing to promote rural and urban broadband access, to lower program costs for VRS providers, thereby allowing more robust services for the hearing impaired.
Second, it can remove the impetus to subsidize artificial competition. Rather than attempt to manufacture competition by fiat, those willing to provide these critical services and necessary enhancement should be recognized for enabling the hearing-impaired community to enjoy the functional equivalency imagined by the ADA.
Third, it can examine new payment and allocation systems, such as reverse auctions, to promote certainty and efficiency in VRS technologies.
Lastly, Congress should look to thoughtfully and cost-effectively expand the breadth of services and functionality for captioning and access — such as those that are free — t0 embrace innovative solutions for the important community of hearing-impaired individuals.
We can and should truly improve the communications experiences of our fellow Americans who are hearing impaired. The current structure, particularly as it applies to VRS, is not conducive to that objective. Congress rightfully can course correct and bring forward a more sustainable environment for such important communications.
Michael O’Rielly, a former FCC Commissioner (2013-2020) and congressional staffer, is president of MPORielly Consulting and a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute.
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