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After two years, app to assist mobile deaf users finally gets nod of approval from FCC

An employee of Wiko telecom company holds a smartphone, on April 11, 2014 at the company's headquarters in Marseille, France. AFP PHOTO / ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULATANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images

It's been over two years, but Miracom -- a Kansas firm that's developed an app to help the deaf and hard-of-hearing use mobile phones -- has finally gotten government approval to hit the market.

As The Washington Post reported in October, the Kansas firm had successfully designed an app, InnoCaption, to accurately transcribe mobile phone conversations in real-time. But it was spinning its wheels as it waited for the Federal Communications Commission to grant it access to a government fund that would allow deaf consumers to use the app for free.

The fund, known as the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Services Fund, reimburses companies for providing communication services to those with hearing or speech problems. But after evidence that some companies were deceptively padding their reimbursement requests, concerns about fraud in the multi-million-dollar fund held up Miracom's progress and threatened to put the app on the ropes.

Now, Miracom is planning a full release at the end of June. "This is just tremendous," said Chuck Owen, Miracom's chief operating office. "We are very excited to be approved, be a part of the TRS community, very excited to offer a functionally equivalent solution to those that are in need and can make great utilization of this product."

Owen said the company will make its official announcement to launch its service at the Hearing Loss Association of America conference at the end of June.

The FCC said in a public notice Tuesday that Miracom has now been granted conditional approval, while the agency evaluates the effectiveness of the InnoCaption app's unique approach to captioning cellphone calls: using human stenographers to transcribe the conversations in real-time. Using people to transcribe calls, the company claims, provides more accurate transcriptions than software-based services. The conditional approval gives Miracom a chance to prove that its unusual method is fast, accurate and scalable.

The filing also outlines that Miracom must also take steps to prevent fraud in its services, to ensure that it doesn't bill the fund improperly -- namely, by verifying that those using its services really are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech impediment.

The FCC has been cracking down on fraud in the fund, announcing earlier this month that it intends to level an $11.9 million fine against California-based Purple Communications for not properly verifying the identities of its customers between June 2010 and June 2011. Defrauding the fund, the FCC's Enforcement Bureau Acting Chief Travis LeBlanc said, is "not only a misuse and waste of government resources, but it comes at the expense of a community that relies on this fund for basic communications needs. We have zero tolerance for this type of abuse.”

In a statement, Purple called the allegations "irresponsible, false and grossly misleading," saying any improper use was the direct result of the FCC's own rules, which prohibited companies from pre-screening registrants before initially providing services at that time. The FCC, since 2012, now does allow for pre-screening and requires companies to verify the names and addresses of its users to support any reimbursement requests. The agency alleged that Purple did not do so in the case of "more than 40,000 registrants" of its service.

John Goodman, chief legal officer at Purple Communications, said in a statement that the company will "endeavor to work with the FCC to achieve the best outcome of this situation for all stakeholders, most importantly for the deaf and hard of hearing consumers we serve on a daily basis."

A previous version of this post misstated the amount of the FCC's proposed fine against Purple. This version has been corrected.