Purple believes the Neutral Platform is either a distraction or it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. First, we need to clarify that there are two concepts being combined here. The first is a “reference platform” that is supposed to be a newly-developed VRS platform, which is fully interoperable and not proprietary to any one provider. The second concept is a “neutral provider” – that would be a contracted operator who would offer VRS service over the reference platform, and would subcontract interpreting to independent VRS interpreting call centers to handle calls from VRS users who choose to make calls through neutral provider/platform. While the current group of certified VRS providers are ineligible to bid to become the neutral provider, they each could offer to handle calls the neutral platform delivers to us out of our call centers.
Conceptually – the reference platform and neutral provider are nice ideals. Having a functional platform that is fully interoperable with everyone else’s systems, and a government-contracted provider running VRS calls that small interpreting centers can plug into and handle calls for users who want to use the neutral platform.
Unfortunately, Purple is skeptical that the FCC will be able to achieve that ideal. A VRS platform – particularly one that’s strong enough to handle 20-50% of the industry’s current VRS volume – is a very, very difficult technical task. The FCC may attract some highly-qualified developers, but the process of building, testing and scaling such a platform is very difficult, very expensive and very time-consuming. We don’t expect that would come to fruition for at least 18 months – and we question whether they will be able to make it work at all. Meanwhile, money from the TRS fund – which is there to provide TRS services to deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans – is being funneled into this expensive and risky experiment. And for what purpose – so there is another VRS provider to compete with the current, private providers?
Remember that almost a year ago (and after three years of work and multiple rounds of public input), the FCC released a broad-reaching VRS reform order. In this order, the FCC addressed (among other things) the issue of creating competition in the VRS marketplace, and creating rules that counter many of Sorenson’s abusive tactics. Interoperability was a headline. They considered requiring video mail functionality between P2P calls across platforms; requiring address books to be portable; and banning non-competition agreements that Sorenson uses to prevent VIs from going to work for another VRS provider. All of these address anticompetitive practices used by Sorenson that abuse consumers, abuse the free market competition in our industry and, as a result, abuse the TRS Fund by impeding the redistribution of Sorenson’s near-monopoly market share.
And what progress has the FCC made in the last year to stimulate competition in VRS? None so far. They have focused primarily on the reference platform, and they’ve made little progress on that. They recently released a Request for Proposal to have the platform built, and recently stated they will issue three more RFPs in the “next several months” that would start the process of building other pieces of the platform that will compete with the VRS providers.
So – what the neutral provider/reference platform concept has done so far has merely cost the FCC time – time that could have been used to address the principal area where reform is needed – which is fair competition among providers. And next, the platform will cost the TRS fund money – a lot of it – and more time. And meanwhile, consumers are still stuck every day with the impacts of Sorenson’s tactics, and the competitive providers are stuck with not be able to grow due to Sorenson’s locked-down “walled garden.” How many Android phones would be sold to hearing people if they could never leave a voice mail for on someone’s iPhone? Or vice versa? The FCC controls when the market will become competitive – and every day the FCC spends its time on the platform at the expense of fostering competition is a good day for Sorenson. And a bad day for both consumers and competitive providers.
That’s why we say it’s a distraction.
Now – the other possibility is that the FCC – in some number of months or years – succeeds in building a platform. Then there would be another VRS provider for consumers to use – that’s not a bad thing. And then the FCC invites existing providers to use that platform if they choose to. But then the FCC will say, “Providers, you may use our free platform, but we won’t pay you to maintain yours.” So the FCC reduces the VRS reimbursement rate to eliminate any amounts that have historically been factored in for providers to maintain and improve their own platforms. Providers then can’t afford to upgrade, innovate, add features, improve quality – they are stuck. And when the neutral platform evolves to become the best one available – and consumers migrate to it in greater numbers, the private providers close their doors and go away, leaving the neutral provider as the only VRS provider. Remember, if the FCC (via the contracted neutral provider) becomes a VRS provider – it will also control the very marketplace in which it competes – including what minimum standards and quality are required, as well as what their competition is paid.
So what we’re saying is that if – and it’s a big IF – the FCC succeeds with the neutral platform, and the FCC continues its current strategic course — the neutral provider could end up being the ONLY VRS provider for consumers, and their calls would be handled by the VRS call centers that are the low bidders for the subcontract to handle calls. This is why we say it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because it could very well be the FCC’s pathway to a nationalized Video Relay service.
We do not think either is good – for consumers, interpreters or certified VRS providers. We believe the FCC should focus immediately on stimulating competition now, and creating a handful of financially sustainable, healthy, innovative private VRS providers who deliver great quality VRS calls to their customers. The VRS solutions available today include various features, qualities, equipment and options that customers can choose from. That’s a marketplace. It lacks competition, but it offers choice and could easily be competitive. With a stroke of the pen, FCC could create competition in VRS by banning several of Sorenson’s practices. But instead, they are on track to replace the current marketplace. They hold all the cards, and the rest of the stakeholders in the VRS community have to wait while they play out this hand.