ARCHIVED -  Telecom Decision CRTC 85-29

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Telecom Decision

Ottawa, 23 December 1985
Telecom Decision CRTC 85-29
For related documents see: Telecom Decisions CRTC 82-5, 83-8 and 85-8.
The Voice Relay Service Centre (VRSC) is currently provided by British Columbia Telephone Company (B.C. Tel), on a trial basis, through the facilities of the Western Institute for the Deaf (WID). The VRSC is the means by which hearing impaired subscribers, who must use telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD's) to use the telephone network, can send messages to, and receive them from, other telephone subscribers. These messages are relayed by specially trained operators located at the VRSC.
WID, a non-profit organization had operated and provided a voice relay service through its own switchboard during office hours. By 1982, however, due to difficulties in both financing the service and providing it after office hours, WID sought a alternative delivery method.
In British Columbia Telephone Company, General Increase in Rates, Telecom Decision CRTC 82-5, 3 May 1982, the Commission directed the company to report by 1 August 1982 on a recommendation submitted during the proceeding by the Greater Vancouver Association for the Deaf that the company provide a 24-hour voice relay service for subscribers who depend on TDD's for telephone access. B.C. Tel opposed the recommendation in a report filed on 27 July 1982.
In British Columbia Telephone Company, General Increase in Rates, Telecom Decision CRTC 83-8, 22 June 1983, the Commission concluded that it did not yet have sufficient data, particularly regarding the number of potential users, to determine whether it would be appropriate to require the company to provide a voice relay service.
On 29 November 1983, the Commission wrote to the company requesting it to submit a proposal for a study of TDD users in the company's territory. B.C. Tel filed its proposal on 23 January 1984. WID filed its comments on the proposal on 3 February 1984. WID stated that it would be unable to continue to provide its voice relay service over the 18-week study period which B.C. Tel had proposed.
On 14 March 1984, the Commission directed the company to provide a voice relay service on a one-year trial basis, available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, throughout British Columbia. The Commission directed further that the service be provided through WID facilities; that quarterly reports on costs and call volumes be submitted; and that the proposed 18-week study period of TDD users commence on June 1984.
The company wrote to the Commission on 3 April 1984, stating its intention to comply with the Commission's directions. The company included in its letter statements that it would provide funding to WID to operate a voice relay service on a one-year trial basis and that it would assist WID in establishing a VRSC. On 28 May 1984, the VRSC commenced operation on a 24 hour per day, 7 day per week basis.
In British Columbia Telephone Company - General Increase in Rates, Telecom Decision CRTC 85-8, 30 April 1985, the Commission directed B.C. Tel to continue to support the VRSC on the same basis as that of the trial, pending the Commission's final decision it, the matter.
During that proceeding, B.C. Tel indicated that it would submit to the Commission recommendations regarding the future operations of the VRSC. On 29 May 1985, the company submitted its recommendations, supported by its analysis of the VRSC operation which was based on a three-week sample period. WID submitted its comments on these recommendations on 4 July 1985, and B.C. Tel replied on 29 July 1985.
B.C. Tel supported the need for the VRSC. It stated that it recognizes the vital importance of the VRSC to the deaf community; the VRSC brings the ability of the deaf to communicate, using the telephone network, closer to that of other subscribers.
The Commission supports B.C. Tel's view regarding the value of the VRSC in providing to the deaf the technical ability to communicate via the telephone. In providing telephone service, B.C. Tel is providing a means by which subscribers who pay primary exchange service rates can communicate with other subscribers. Hearing impaired subscribers pay full rates to B.C. Tel for primary exchange service and, as well, incur expenses for their own special terminals, the TDD's. They should, therefore be provided by B.C. Tel with the same ability as any other subscriber to communicate with any and all other subscribers. The Commission believes that the VRSC is the best method currently available to provide the hearing impaired with this ability and considers that it is B.C. Tel's responsibility to provide it.
The Commission wishes to emphasize that this is not a question of ordering a telephone company to provide a service enhancement or a discount, at its own cost, due to the disability of a particular class of customer. Rather, it is the provision by a telephone company, to rate paying subscribers, of the means to use the telephone on a basis that attempts to provide access comparable to that of other subscribers. In this particular case, the means by which the service is currently being provided are the results of several years of development, first by WID and more recently by B.C. Tel and WID. The results of the current trial have demonstrated clearly the usefulness of the VRSC and the low incremental monthly cost to each B.C. Tel subscriber.
A. Hours of Operation
B.C. Tel stated that its three-week sample study showed an average of only 3.19 calls per night. The company argued that in view of this low night-time demand, the VRSC should be closed between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. and any emergency calls should be routed to the Vancouver Crisis Centre (VCC). The resulting savings, the company said, would amount to $27,000 per year.
WID argued that, for several reasons, the VRSC should be operated 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. WID's first reason was that if the hearing-impaired are to have access equal to that of other subscribers, it must include night access, which requires VRSC night operation. Second, such operation is also required for the safety of the hearing-impaired and for other reasons, such as telephone access to an employer, before 7:00 a.m. Third, hearing-impaired people would be prevented from taking advantage of night discounts on long distance calls which would be unjustly discriminatory. WID's fourth reason for advocating VRSC night operation was that the VCC would not be a suitable alternative even for emergency service; the VCC staff is not trained to use TDD's and, because the VCC does not provide 800 service, there would be no night-time emergency service for the hearing-impaired outside Greater Vancouver.
In reply, B.C. Tel argued that the VRSC should be operated efficiently and stated that its sample showed an average of only 1.3 call per day between 1:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. The company argued that any alleged discrimination would not be unjust in the absence of demand.
The Commission considers that 24 hour operation of the VRSC to handle all calls to and from the hearing-impaired is consistent with the Commission's view that the hearing-impaired should have telephone access which closely approximates that of other subscribers. The Commission looks upon WID's argument that the VRSC is the only access to emergency services for at least some TDD users, as a compelling one. In addition, it is clear to the Commission that if the VCC were to serve as a night-time alternative for hearing-impaired subscribers, VCC operators would have to be specially trained. Further, because the holding time is longer on a typical TDD call, VCC facilities would be tied up for longer periods.
Accordingly, the Commission has concluded that the VRSC should be operated 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
B. Staff and Location
With respect to staffing, both B.C. Tel and WID agreed that staffing levels should be directly related to forecasted calling volumes.
On the question of whether the VRSC should be located on B.C. Tel or WID premises, B.C. Tel reported the results of its analysis to the effect that it would cost about $100,000 per year less to locate on WID premises. B.C. Tel and WID both agreed that the VRSC should remain on WID premises.
In the Commission's view, the choice of location is appropriately left to B.C. Tel. The Commission notes B.C. Tel's arguments in favour of locating the service on WID premises, and WID's agreement, and it sees no reason to disagree.
B.C. Tel argued that the changing economic environment warrants considering a change from the current subscriber rate base funding method to some other method, preferably one from government sources. The company gave three reasons why the subscriber rate base method is not acceptable: shareholders would be at risk from VRSC cost increases which are not included in the company's cost base; because subscribers do not know that they are funding the VRSC, it would amount to hidden taxation; and the Commission would become an arbiter in determining proper funding levels.
The company indicated that lack of billing start-up costs is the only advantage of this method.
Failing a decision in favour of government funding, B.C. Tel favoured a billing surcharge. The surcharge would be $0.05 per subscriber access line per month and would be separately identified on each bin. Proceeds from the proposed surcharge, estimated at about $69,000 per month, would be held in trust for WID to draw on upon proof of need.
B.C. Tel argued that the proposed surcharge would provide several advantages: the estimated proceeds would permit WID to serve the hearing-impaired more completely; surcharge rate changes would require Commission approval; it would be readily identifiable on a subscriber's bill; and the Commission-approved tariff rates would provide a better indication of the telephone service price.
WID argued that, because the VRSC permits telephone service to the hearing-impaired which is equivalent to that of provided to other subscribers, subscriber rate base funding is appropriate. It argued further that billing surcharge funding would single out hearing-impaired subscribers and would be sufficiently discriminatory to violate sections 321(1) and (2) of the Railway Act. In support of its position, WID pointed out that it is costly to provide service to remote communities, yet no surcharges are imposed.
WID objected to the suggested trust aspect of the billing surcharge because it would require trustees and detailed rules of operation. It would also involve unnecessary legal, accounting and administrative expenses.
WID urged that subscriber rate base funding be continued and that the ongoing VRSC costs be included in the company's revenue requirement.
In its reply, B.C. Tel continued to object to subscriber rate base funding for three reasons: first, that without annual examination of its revenue requirement, the Commission might be unable to address any additional WID requested funds without a special proceeding, thus adding costs to B.C. Tel; second, that the changing economic environment warrants consideration of alternative methods; third, that decisions would be required on funding levels to cover ongoing operational changes, which could be avoided by providing WID, in trust, with the excess funds generated by the billing surcharge method.
B.C. Tel replied to WID's objections to the billing surcharge method, stating that WID's use of trust funds would be subject to audit and that any increase in the surcharge to gain additional revenue would require WID to obtain the Commission's approval. It argued that creating a trust would be simple and would put the service on a business footing. B.C. Tel changed its original proposal by suggesting that the surcharge should not be shown on each bill, thus eliminating the cost of a new line on the bill. It disagreed that the billing surcharge would contravene the Railway Act and it objected to WID's comparison with service to remote communities, arguing that with the latter it could expect some return on investment, while it could not with the VRSC.
With respect to the billing surcharge funding method, the Commission is of the view that B.C. Tel's revised position, which is not to identify the surcharge on subscribers' bills, takes away from the effect of arguments in favour of this option. The Commission considers that subscriber rate base funding is the only method consistent with its conclusion that B.C. Tel is responsible for the provision of the VRSC. Accordingly, the Commission directs the company to continue subscriber rate base funding of the VRSC.
WID submitted that the VRSC should be reviewed at the next rate hearing and that the level and quality of service provided should be included in the company's general rate application.
B.C. Tel agreed that the VRSC should be subject to review at the next rate hearing, but stated that the level of service should be WID's responsibility.
The Commission notes that no party has indicated that the quality of service provided during the trial has been other than satisfactory. The Commission notes also that it has received few complaints in this regard. The Commission has concluded, therefore, that the service, as it is currently provided, is appropriate for the operation of the VRSC in the immediate future and will require B.C. Tel to continue to provide service of equal quality.
B.C. Tel submitted that, should the Commission direct it to continue its administrative role in the VRSC, it should continue to have access to VRSC completed call tickets. The company agreed to continue its technical support.
WID argued that it, rather than B.C. Tel, should analyse VRSC can tickets. In WID's view, such a solution would demonstrate to the members of the hearing-impaired community that their privacy would be protected. WID stated that it would collect and analyse the call ticket data on a weekly or even a daily basis, as required. WID concluded that rather than having an administrative or supervisory role, B.C. Tel should provide technical support. advice and assistance.
WID argued that the increasing amount of VRSC traffic shows that, with a budget fixed for one year in advance, keeping VRSC service at the appropriate level could not be guaranteed. WID submitted that B.C. Tel, therefore, should make funding decisions from time to time, subject to the Commission's concurrence; this would permit WID to appeal to the Commission should it conclude that the company had erred in its funding decision.
Regarding call ticket data analysis, B.C. Tel replied that accurate data connection is needed for efficient VRSC operation and, because such connection is best done at source, WID should collect the data. However, B.C. Tel argued, it has the expertise to process the data, at minimum cost, for reporting purposes and it should be permitted to do so.
The company rejected WID's argument regarding funding level adjustments, arguing that such a solution would put the Commission in the position of an arbiter.
The Commission considers that B.C. Tel's responsibility to provide the VRSC requires that the company have sufficient control over the service to enable it to discharge this responsibility. Accordingly, the company should have the discretion with respect to the method of providing the VRSC that it does with any of its other services.
Fernand Bélisle
Secretary General

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