To allow Americans with disabilities to experience the benefits of broadband, hardware, software, services and digital content must be accessible and assistive technologies must be affordable.
Accessibility for the Disabled
On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the law of the land. This landmark legislation gave the Federal Communications Commission a mandate to ensure access to telecommunications by Americans with hearing and speech disabilities.
Title IV of the ADA requires the FCC to ensure that nationwide telecommunications relay services are available for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or who have a speech disability to communicate with other individuals in a manner that is functionally equivalent to people who use voice telephone services. In 2010, with passage of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), Congress authorized the distribution of free communications equipment to low-income individuals who are deaf-blind. The FCC used this authority to develop the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, also known as "iCanConnect." Since 2012, iCanConnect has provided the equipment needed to make communications services accessible to low-income individuals who have both significant vision loss and significant hearing loss. Among other things, this program has enabled people who are deaf-blind and were unable to access telecommunications relay services to now do so. Although iCanConnect started as a pilot FCC program, it became permanent as of July 1, 2017. Through iCanConnect, relay service programs, and other accessibility initiatives under the ADA and CVAA, the FCC is working to ensure that all Americans have equal access to essential telecommunications services so that everyone can take full advantage of all the latest life-enhancing innovations.
FCC Increases Amount Of Required Video Described Programming On Top-Rated Broadcast and Nonbroadcast Networks
The Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules to ensure Americans who are blind or visually impaired have access to more video described programming. Video description, also called audio description, allows people with limited vision to hear a description of on-screen activity while also following the dialogue, providing a more fulsome entertainment experience. According to the National Federation of the Blind, more than 7 million Americans have a visual disability. The new rules adopted today will ensure that more video described programming is available to those who rely on it, and also provide broadcast and nonbroadcast television networks more flexibility in complying with the rules.
Beginning in July 2018, broadcasters and pay-TV providers carrying one of the top networks must provide 87.5 hours of described programming per calendar quarter, which averages out to roughly one hour per day of description on each included network. This is an increase of 75 percent over the 50 hours per quarter presently required. While the current 50 hour requirement must be provided during prime-time or children’s programming, the additional 37.5 hours per quarter being added by these new rules can be provided at any time of day between 6 a.m. and midnight. The networks currently covered by the rule are ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Disney Channel, History, TBS, TNT, and USA. However, the list of the top five nonbroadcast networks will be updated in July 2018, so this is subject to change.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the following items are tentatively on the agenda for the July Open Commission Meeting scheduled for Thursday, July 13, 2017:
- Call Authentication Trust Anchor – The Commission will consider a Notice of Inquiry that seeks comment on methods to authenticate telephone calls to further secure our telephone networks against illegal robocallers. The Notice seeks comment on implementing authentication standards for telephone calls, as well as the Commission’s role in this process and other public policy considerations. (WC Docket No. 17-97)
- Advanced Methods to Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls – The Commission will consider a Notice of Inquiry that explores methods by which reassigned telephone number data could be made available to callers to avoid making unwanted calls to consumers. (CG Docket No. 17-59)
- Protecting Consumers from Unauthorized Carrier Changes and Related Unauthorized Charges – The Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking outlining steps to further curtail slamming and cramming. (CG Docket No. 17-169)
- Rural Call Completion - The Commission will consider a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes rule changes to better address ongoing problems in the completion of long-distance telephone calls to rural areas. The Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes to (1) adopt new rural call completion requirements for covered providers, and (2) eliminate the Commission’s existing rural call completion recording, retention, and reporting rules. (WC Docket No. 13-39)
- Video Description – The Commission will consider a Report and Order which increases the required hours of video described programming that covered broadcast stations and MVPDs must provide to consumers. (MB Docket No. 11-43)
- Updating the Part 2 Equipment Authorization Program – The Commission will consider a First Report and Order that would update and amend its equipment authorization program by replacing two certification procedures with a new Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity process, codifying procedures for the electronic labeling of devices, modernizing the requirements related to the importation of electronic equipment, and incorporating up-to-date methods for equipment compliance measurements into the rules. (ET Docket No. 15-170)
- Radar Services in the 76-81 GHz Band – The Commission will consider a Report and Order that would address use of the 76-81 GHz band under the Part 95 rules to support a broad range of vehicular radar uses, such as collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control systems, as well as to expand the types of fixed and mobile radar operations permitted within airport environments. (ET Docket No. 15-26)
- Wireless Microphone Operations – The Commission will consider an Order on Reconsideration and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would address licensed and unlicensed wireless microphone operations in the TV bands and various other frequency bands. (GN Docket No. 14-166; ET Docket No. 14-165)
Remarks of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn at the Disability Advisory Committee Meeting, Washington, D.C
Let me begin by expressing how pleased I am to see the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) move rapidly to certify states and territories for participation in the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, also known as “iCanConnect.” I will focus specifically on three proceedings that were circulated during the previous Administration, that if acted upon, can significantly improve the lives of those living with a disability. First, it is imperative that we act to increase the number of hours of video described programming. The Commission must also address improved accessibility of closed captioning. Third, we have an opportunity to improve how Americans with hearing loss, access wireline and wireless communications services.
US District Judge Robert Scola ruled that grocery chain Winn-Dixie Stores must make its website accessible to the blind, following an unprecedented trial over a gray area of accessibility law.
The decision adds momentum to a push by plaintiffs’ lawyers and disability-rights groups to make all consumer websites accessible to the blind and hearing-impaired. Uncertainty in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and a lack of Justice Department guidance has created widespread confusion over whether websites must meet the same stringent accessibility standards as stores do. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have latched on to the ambiguity to launch hundreds of website accessibility lawsuits, most of which privately settle. The latest ruling “is definitely a game-changer,” said Minh Vu, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP who represents companies facing accessibility claims and is not involved in the case. While the decision is only immediately applicable to Winn-Dixie, Ms. Vu said, it sends a signal to other companies that “there’s a very real possibility a judge could find this way.”
Recognizing innovative communications technology designed for people with disabilities, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced winners and honorable mentions of the sixth annual Chairman’s Awards for Advancement in Accessibility (Chairman's AAA).
2017’s winners include an app that can caption live conversations, automated image recognition for social media that tags images with descriptive text for those with limited sight, guidelines to script video content in ways that naturally describe on-screen action for those who cannot see it, and an audible video programing interface for people who are blind or visually impaired. In addition to the four winners, two honorable mentions were chosen.
As long as I’m Chairman, I can assure you that the Federal Communications Commission will continue to be an active and enthusiastic participant in the M-Enabling Summit. That’s because this Summit aligns perfectly with the FCC’s statutory mission and my personal priorities.
Since day one of my Chairmanship, I’ve said the Commission has no higher calling than extending digital opportunity to all Americans. Every citizen who wants to participate in our digital economy and society should be able to do so—no matter who you are. A big part of that is closing the digital divide in our country—connecting people who are being bypassed by the digital revolution. And the simple truth is, in too many instances, that divide persists, and is perhaps growing. That’s why I spent the past week on a road trip from Milwaukee (WI) to Casper (WY). Over 1,672 miles and nearly 20 stops, I personally heard from people in rural towns and Tribal areas about the need for high-speed connectivity in their communities. And I discussed ways the FCC could help.
Multichannel video programming distributors (pay-TV providers) have a July 10 deadline for making their TV Everywhere programming more accessible to the blind and visually impaired everywhere. The Federal Communications Commission's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau was reminding those MVPDs this week that as of that date they are required to pass through a secondary audio stream of emergency information if they allow their subs to access linear (prescheduled) programming services via second-screen devices—laptops, phones—as part of their service, yet another step in the FCC's ongoing implementation of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) of 2010 requirement that emergency information in crawls and graphics that break into regular programming are accessible.
The definition of linear programming subject to the requirement is network programming that "can only be received via a connection provided by the MVPD using an MVPD-provided application or plug-in." So, it does not apply to programming that is only distributed via the internet (Netflix, Hulu) that is accessible by subs using either an MVPD-provided broadband connection or a third-party ISP connection.
Network neutrality continues to make headlines and draw millions of Federal Communications Commission comments, but the top organizations and companies lobbying the FCC have also been focused on other issues, such as the video relay service and fund for rural deployment. In recent weeks, the agency has received over 170 ex parte filings, or lobbying communications companies and associations make with agency staff and commissioners by phone, in person, or in writing. Here are the top five groups lobbying the FCC between May 8 and June 2:
- 1. Sorenson Communications and 2. ZVRS Holding Company: two providers of video relay services, which allow people with hearing disabilities to communicate by phone using sign language.
- 3. NCTA – The Rural Broadband Association submitted eight filings to the FCC, focused mainly on issues related to the Connect America Fund.
- 4. Benton Foundation submitted five filings focused on the net neutrality proceeding.
- 5. NCTA – The Internet and Television Association also submitted five filings on several topics including spectrum policy issues and paper versus electronic notice requirements for consumers.