Telecommunications Relay Service

The FCC proposed sweeping reforms to its process for suspending and debarring entities from participating in its largest funding programs, including the four Universal Service Fund (“USF”) programs, at its meeting on November 22, 2019. If adopted, the proposed rules would mark a sea change in FCC enforcement, allowing the FCC to cut off funding more quickly and for a wider range of alleged misconduct. The FCC also would expand the scope of these rules to cover its Telecommunications Relay Service (“TRS”) program and National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (“NDBEP”), in addition to the High-Cost, Lifeline, E-Rate, and Rural Health Care USF programs.

The proposed rules also would impose new disclosure obligations on support recipients and require them to verify that they do not work with suspended/debarred entities. In addition, the proposed rules would create a federal reciprocity system, in which entities suspended/debarred from participating in funding programs administered by other agencies similarly would be prevented from participating in the FCC’s programs (and vice versa). The proposed rules would impact nearly every USF participant and warrant close attention. The FCC has not announced comment deadlines on its proposals, but they will likely occur in early 2020. While the FCC’s proposals are just the first step towards actual rule changes, the agency has shown every indication that it will continue moving full speed ahead on USF reform in the coming year.


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The FCC plans to prohibit the use of Universal Service Fund (“USF”) support to purchase equipment or services from foreign entities that it determines pose national security risks at its next meeting scheduled for November 19, 2019. As we previously reported, the ban may severely impact participants in all federal USF programs and involve a costly “rip and replace” process to remove foreign-made equipment from domestic telecommunications networks. The FCC also expects to move forward on its heavily-anticipated E911 vertical accuracy (i.e., z-axis) proceeding and adopt new requirements for wireless carriers to better identify caller locations in multi-story buildings. Rounding out the major actions, the FCC anticipates proposing new rules for suspending and debarring entities from participating in USF and other funding programs; removing longstanding unbundling and resale requirements for certain telecommunications services; and widening the contribution base for the Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (“IP CTS”) to include intrastate revenues.

The draft items cover the gamut of telecommunications issues, affecting everything from the construction of next-generation 5G networks to legacy intercarrier competition rules, and should be closely watched. You will find more details on the most significant November FCC meeting items after the break:


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On Friday, October 4, 2019, Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) Chairman Ajit Pai circulated a draft Report and Order (“Order”) that would adopt two uncontroversial changes to the FCC’s tariff filing requirements. Specifically, a 2018 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Interim Waiver Order (“Notice”) teed up the potential elimination of the requirement to file annual short form tariff review plans (“short form TRP”) and of the prohibition on tariff cross-references. That 2018 Notice also granted an interim waiver of the tariff cross-reference prohibition while the short form TRP has been the subject of separate waivers for each of the past few years. As a result, the proposed Order essentially would simply be codifying the regulatory status quo.

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In a unanimous decision at its February open meeting, the FCC adopted a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) further reforming its IP Captioned Telephone Service (“IP CTS”) program, which is part of the telecommunications relay service (“TRS”). After the IP CTS program grew to 80 percent of the costs covered by TRS, last June the FCC approved a package of reform measures to control costs by imposing interim compensation rates to bring compensation closer to FCC determined actual average provider costs. In the instant Order, the FCC takes steps (over the objections of the IP CTS providers) to address potential waste, fraud and abuse by requiring IP CTS providers to submit user registration information to the existing video relay service (“VRS”) Database to limit program access to only those determined to be eligible to use IP CTS. The Commission also granted waivers of its emergency call handling requirements to reduce the requirements on IP CTS providers to relay certain information to PSAPs and initiate reconnection of a disconnected 911 call. The FNPRM proposes additional changes, including making permanent the emergency call handling requirement changes granted by waiver. Comments will be due 30 days after publication of the item in the Federal Register and reply comments will be due 45 days after publication.

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As summer begins to wind down, the FCC will begin considering whether to revise or eliminate decade-old regulations, including certain rules related to the Universal Service Fund (“USF”), equipment authorization procedures, and disabilities access. The FCC kicked off its review with a Public Notice under the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which requires federal agencies to reexamine regulations within 10 years of their adoption to assess the continued need for the rules, the rules’ complexity, and whether the rules overlap or conflict with other federal regulations. The purpose of the review is to ensure that older, unnecessary rules do not remain on the books, lowering the compliance burden for smaller businesses. Although the FCC rarely eliminates a rule outright as part of this review, the comments received can help the agency identify improvements for future rulemakings or flag potential compliance issues.

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In June, the FCC approved a package of regulatory measures – Report and Order, Declaratory Ruling, Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”), and Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) – directed at reforming the IP Captioned Telephone Service (“IP CTS”) program to address concerns about its sustainability. IP CTS is a form of telecommunications relay service (“TRS”) that enables people with hearing loss to communicate by speaking while listening with any remaining hearing ability and reading real-time captions. IP CTS is paid for by the FCC through its TRS Fund and has experienced significant usage growth, now representing almost 80 percent of the costs covered by the Fund. The FNPRM and NOI, which propose fundamental reforms to the IP CTS program, were published in the Federal Register on July 17, 2018, which set the upcoming comment deadlines. Comments on the FNPRM are due by September 17, 2018 and replies by October 16, 2018. Comments on the NOI are due by October 16, 2018 and replies by November 15, 2018.

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As it does every year, the FCC released its update to the annual Form 499-A.  The Form 499-A is used to report revenues for purposes of the federal Universal Service Fund and also for calculating associated revenue-based contribution obligations such as TRS, NANP, LNP and FCC Regulatory Fees.  The Public Notice describes changes to the

Back in October, the FCC released an order implementing the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA).  Among other things, the order expanded the pool of contributors to the Telecommunications Relay Service Fund to include virtually all VoIP providers, including those that did not fit the FCC’s definition of "interconnected" VoIP.

To implement this contribution requirement, non-interconnected VoIP providers are required to register with the FCC by filing FCC Form 499-A, which is better known as the form used for universal service fund contributions.  (The Form 499-A is used for other revenue-based support funds as well.)  Providers must file this form no later than December 31, 2011.  At this time, it appears that fewer than a dozen new providers have registered to date.  


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Our post about the unique enforcement posture of interconnected VoIP quickly became the most popular post on the Telecom Law Monitor.  One person asked if we could elaborate on the differences in regulatory treatment between traditional telecom services, interconnected VoIP and non-interconnected VoIP (like Skype).   In response, we prepared a chart comparing applicability of the major telecom obligations to both types of VoIP.


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We have a classic "man bites dog" story for you today:  The FCC announced that its contribution factor for the fund that supports the Telecommunications Relay Service — a telecom assistance service for persons with hearing or speech disabilities — is decreasing by nearly 50%.  Whereas last year’s TRS contribution factor was 1.1% of telecom revenues