PUC Establishes Wireless Device Distribution Program to Assist Individuals with Disabilities
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has moved to establish a permanent wireless distribution program for low-income Pennsylvania residents with disabilities and initiated a review of Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) and Telecommunications Device Distribution Program (TDDP) programs, to explore how they might take advantage of new and developing technologies.
The Commission voted 5-0 in support of a motion by Chairman Gladys M. Brown to expand the existing TDDP services, which were established as part of a broad array of programs intended to ensure adequate and equivalent access to telecommunications services by individuals with disabilities.
“This is another step toward enhancing communications capabilities for low-income Pennsylvanians with disabilities,” Chairman Brown noted in her motion to establish the expanded program.
The action by the Commission follows extensive review and analysis of a two-year Wireless Expansion Initiative (WEI) pilot program funded from the Telecommunications Relays Service (TRS) program and administered by Temple University on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR).
Chairman Brown’s motion outlined the following actions:
- Establishes a permanent wireless device distribution program within the Commission’s TRS program, in response to recommendations and experiences from the WEI pilot program;
- Authorizes a statewide wireless distribution program for consumers who are hard of hearing, deaf, blind, or speech-impaired and are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines,
- Grants OVR’s budget proposal of $458,179 to fund a wireless device distribution program within Pennsylvania’s TRS program for an initial three-year period
- Recognizes that the OVR budget approved today can be adjusted in response changes in demand given Pennsylvania’s demographics;
- Directs OVR’s administrator to use Pennsylvania’s Regional Assistive Technology Resource Centers or their functional equivalent to ensure that the program is operated on a geographically balanced basis to benefit all Pennsylvanians;
- Supports gradually shifting the focus from funding for non-equipment costs and increasing the funding for equipment costs; and
- Adopts a funding level that remains within the existing TRS budget and $.08 surcharge per month on residential and wireline consumers to support a TRS Program.
The wireless device distribution program will be monitored by the PUC’s TRS Advisory Board and the Office of Special Assistants, in consultation with the Commission’s Bureau of Technical Utility Services and Law Bureau, who will report to the Commission periodically on the operation and the surcharge funding for these services.
In a companion action, the Commission voted 4-1 to adopt a motion by Commissioner Norman J. Kennard to review the existing TRS and TDDP programs, with a goal of modernizing them. The Commission has tasked its Bureau of Audits to report on the historical trends and future projections for the newly expanded programs, while simultaneously creating a task force charged with providing recommendations on modernizing these vital programs.
The task force will be comprised of the TRS Advisory Board members, program participants, the statutory advocates, wireline and wireless service providers, and other groups with technical and policy expertise, to undertake this important review on the sweeping changes in technology and society since the creation of these programs.
“The historical review and empirical assessment by the Bureau of Audits and the policy findings and recommendations by the TRS Task Force will assist the Commission in making a fully informed decision as we seek to fashion a more modern, transformative programs,” noted Commissioner Kennard.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission balances the needs of consumers and utilities; ensures safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates; protects the public interest; educates consumers to make independent and informed utility choices; furthers economic development; and fosters new technologies and competitive markets in an environmentally sound manner.