The Federal Communication Commission (FCC] announced yesterday [3/16/2020] that some of the VRS providers reported an inability to fulfill their FCC speed-of-answer requirements due to “extraordinary developments,” which severely challenged their ability to answer and process all calls. FCC’s announcement also reports that “certain TRS providers are making immediate arrangements” for a large number of their interpreters, who currently work at call centers, to handle calls at their homes instead.
This indicates that providers who previously did not have the FCC’s permission to participate in the At-Home Program are now trying to have VRS interpreters work from home through infrastructures that may not be up to par with FCC requirements, as an attempt to maintain essential services for our community during this pandemic. Valid concerns have been raised about hold times for emergency and health-related calls.
To allow VRS providers to serve the Deaf community’s needs, the FCC has made the decision to suspend some rules for the At-Home Program for March 13, 2020 through May 15, 2020.
VRS providers could not bill for more than 30 percent of their services from their “At-Home Program” before the suspension, and this maximum cap has been temporarily removed. Previously, only those with three years of VRS call center experience were allowed to apply and be hired for the opportunity to interpret VRS calls from home, and now this expands to include those with three years of professional interpreting experience in the community.
Even now with the suspended At-Home Program rules that allow VRS providers to keep up with the demand of calls, community members are still concerned about the quality of service because, as stated in the 10/31/19 announcement, providers must make sure they comply with the FCC’s mandatory minimum standards. There is no mention of oversight and reporting requirements for VRS providers participating in the At-Home Program for the time while the rules are suspended. Instances have been reported where interpreters took calls, even when the quality of connection was clearly inadequate.
Deaf Vee Journal developed and released a brief survey for community members in regard to the quality of VRS services and inquiry of how important it is for providers to communicate on their plans and expectations for the upcoming weeks. A total of 30 participants filled the survey out. In regard to the question “How important is it to you that your primary VRS provider let you know if they may not be able to meet your VRS call needs?” on a 1-10 scale with 1 being “not important at all” and 10 being “very, very important,” the average response was a 9.
Prior to yesterday’s official FCC announcement, Deaf Vee Journal had contacted the FCC to ask if VRS providers other than ZP Better Together, LLC had contacted them for temporary authorization to initiate At-Home Program services. Sorenson, Global VRS, and Convo Relay seemed to have very little to zero interest in the At-Home Program before the start of the pandemic. In a previous January 29, 2020 article by Deaf Vee Journal, Convo Relay stated that they had not decided on whether the At-Home Program was a good fit for their organization.
If anything, this pandemic has shown significant gaps in the national telecommunications system when it comes to disaster preparedness, contingency plans, and provider transparency. The lack of direct communication from VRS providers continues to leave community members and small Deaf-owned businesses in the dark, stressed out and wondering what’s next.