FCC Proposes to Extend Accessibility and TRS Fund Contribution Obligations to Unregulated Internet Services

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
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As the Internet becomes a bigger part of Americans’ lives, the days when it could remain “unfettered by Federal or State regulation” appear to be drawing to a close. A recent illustration is the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (Accessibility Act), which President Obama signed into law last October.

The Accessibility Act is intended to help bridge the growing divide between modern communications services and the ability of individuals with hearing and/or vision impairments to access those services.1 In doing so, a new statutory category of service called “non-interconnected VoIP” was created. While the statute itself does not say much about what constitutes a “non-interconnected VoIP” service, the FCC’s interpretation of the law, as discussed in two recent notices of proposed rulemaking proceedings (available here and here) adopted last week, signals a potential for comprehensive registration, reporting, enforcement, contribution and other compliance obligations on an extremely broad range of VoIP services that, prior to enactment of the Accessibility Act, had been subject to little, if any, FCC regulation or oversight.

Consequently, “one-way” VoIP services, as well as “multi-purpose” services like online games, Internet customer service, and private internal enterprise systems, all of which have some degree of integrated VoIP functionality, are now potentially subject to regulation of one kind or another by the FCC.

Non-interconnected VoIP: a new statutory service category

The Accessibility Act broadly defines “non-interconnected VoIP”2 to include any VoIP service not currently deemed an “interconnected VoIP” service, as that term was defined by the FCC in 2005, and has now been codified by statute.3 This would appear to capture an extremely broad range of services, but primarily includes one-way VoIP services, that is, those VoIP services that enable a user to either make or receive calls from the public telephone network, but not both.4

Under the new law, providers of non-interconnected VoIP must comply with two obligations currently imposed on telecommunications carriers and interconnected VoIP providers: (1) participation and contributions to the Telecommunications Relay Services Fund (TRS Fund); and (2) ensuring that services are “accessible to” and “usable by” individuals with hearing and/or vision impairments (accessibility rules).

Please see below for more information.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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