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Advocates Press FCC for Functional Equivalence

The FCC should establish a definition for “functional equivalence” and create uniform metrics for telecom relay service providers, said deaf and hard of hearing advocates in recent interviews. Hundreds of deaf and hard of hearing consumers submitted comments in docket 10-51 over the past two weeks urging this. Stakeholders said functional equivalency means a relay user can call or text using one number and have access to technologies similar to those of hearing consumers.

Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is “fully aware of all these filings,” said ZVRS and Purple Communications CEO Sherri Turpin. Rosenworcel acknowledged the filings during a Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. webinar Tuesday. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act “took the concept of functional equivalency from the Americans with Disabilities Act and updated it for communications in the digital age,” Rosenworcel said: Accessibility and functional equivalency “cannot be afterthoughts.”

The deaf community is “still using technology from 2000,” said TDI CEO Eric Kaika in an interview. “We are pretty much relying on a relay system that was originally built based on the old public switched telephone network.” This lag is a combination of a lack of funding and the difficulty in getting the technology right, Kaika said.

The FCC “hasn’t come down with a real solid definition of functional equivalence,” said Hearing Loss Association of America Director-Public Policy Lise Hamlin. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Advocacy Network defines functional equivalency as the ability for a deaf consumer to receive or make relay calls “equally in the entire conversation with the other party or parties and they experience the same activity, emotional context, purpose, operation, work, service, or role (function) within the call as if the call is between individuals who are not using relay services.”

The FCC remains committed to the work necessary to make all forms of communications accessible and useful for everyone in the country,” emailed a spokesperson Wednesday. As Rosenworcel “made clear in her remarks to TDI earlier this week, we need to continue to give meaning to functional equivalency in everything we do.”

The FCC has been considering automatic speech recognition in recent months, which Hamlin said needs to include metrics for providers. Hamlin said there are no metrics for IP captioned telephone service providers, so “you can’t tell if it’s functionally equivalent if you don’t know how they’re performing” or if they’re using different metrics (see 2103050042). Hamlin said IP CTS metrics should include caption delays and accuracy. Consumers also want competition and innovation, Hamlin said, because companies “won’t be interested in” or spend “time or money” on relay services if the rates are cut back too far. Video relay service rates have been cut 47% in the past decade, Turpin said.

Relay service is “hit or miss,” Kaika said, because not all interpreters are equipped to communicate a user’s needs: “If I’m calling my doctor or lawyer, I would really want something more specialized.” That service is skills-based routing, he said, “but that’s not really an option right now in relay.”

My sense is that [commissioners] are listening,” Hamlin said. “There’s a greater chance that we’ll get to some of these answers” under the Biden administration: “Where the controversy comes is within the details.” Getting the FCC to take action is “definitely going to take a [Democratic] majority” on the FCC, Kaika said.