21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

In summary, the “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act,” when passed would update the Communications Act and establish new safeguards for disability access to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as technology changes and the United States migrates to the next generation of Internet-based and digital communication technologies.  The following provisions are of particular interest to our community:

Communications Access

Hearing Aid Compatibility.  Extends federal law that currently requires hearing aid compatibility on newly manufactured and imported telephones, to comparable customer premises equipment used to provide IP-enabled communication service.  The purpose of this section is to make sure that people with hearing loss have access to telephone devices used with advanced technologies, including cell phones or any other handsets used for Internet-based voice communications. (This section is not intended to extend to headsets or headphones used with computers.)

Relay Services.  This section clarifies that telecommunications relay services (TRS) are intended to ensure that people who have hearing or speech disabilities can use relay services to engage in functionally equivalent telephone communication with all other people, not just people without a hearing or speech disability.  It revises Section 225 of the Communications Act, which has been interpreted at times (by the FCC) to authorize only relay services between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. This section also expands the relay service obligation to contribute to the Telecommunications Relay Services Fund to all providers of IP-enabled communication services that provide voice communication.

Access to Internet-Based Services and Equipment.  This section builds upon authority contained in Section 255 of the Communications Act, which generally requires telecommunications service providers, as well as interconnected VoIP providers and manufacturers, to make their services and equipment accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.  This section creates new safeguards for Internet-based communications technologies (equipment, services and networks) to be accessible by people with disabilities, unless doing so would result in an undue burden.  Where an undue burden would result, manufacturers and providers must make their equipment and services compatible with specialized equipment and services typically used by people with disabilities.  The term “undue burden” has the same meaning given it in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This section also contains measures to improve the accountability and enforcement of disability safeguards under Section 255, including directives for new FCC complaint procedures, reporting obligations for industry and the FCC, the creation of a clearinghouse of information on accessible products and services, and directives for enhanced outreach and education by the FCC and NTIA.

Universal Service.  This section makes consumers with disabilities – as a distinct group – eligible to receive universal service support through two specific measures.  First, it grants the FCC authority to designate broadband services needed for “phone communication” by people with disabilities as services eligible to receive support under the existing Lifeline and Linkup universal service programs.  For example, this would include deaf individuals who are otherwise eligible for Lifeline and Linkup support, but who rely on Internet-based video relay service or point-to-point video for their telephone communications. Second, it grants authority to the FCC to designate programs that distribute specialized equipment used to make telecommunications and Internet-enabled communication services accessible to individuals who are deaf-blind, as eligible for universal service support.  Such support, however, is capped at $10 million per year.

Emergency Access and Real-Time Text Support.  This section contains a specific requirement for real-time text support, to ensure that people with disabilities, especially individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing or who have a speech disability, are able to communicate with others via text in an IP environment with the same reliability and interoperability as they receive via the public telephone network when using TTYs.  A primary goal of this section is to ensure that individuals who rely on text to communicate have equal access to emergency services during and after the migration to a national IP-enabled emergency network.

Video Programming

Capability, User Interfaces, and Video Programming Guides and Menus.  This section directs the FCC to conduct three inquiries: (1) to identify formats and software needed to transmit, receive and display closed captioning and video programming provided via Internet-enabled services and digital wireless services, including ways to transmit televised emergency information that is accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired; and (2) to identify ways to make user interfaces (controls such as turning these devices on and off, controlling volume and selecting programming) on television and other video programming devices accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired, and (3) to identify ways to make video programming guides and menus (typically on-screen) accessible in real-time to people who cannot read those guides or menus.

Closed-Captioning Decoder and Video Description Capability.  This section expands the scope of devices that must display closed captions under the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 from the present requirement of television sets with screens that are 13 inches or larger, to all video devices that receive or display video programming transmitted simultaneously with sound, including those that can receive or display programming carried over the Internet.  The section also requires these devices to be able to transmit and deliver video descriptions.  Video description is the provision of verbal descriptions of the on-screen visual elements of a show provided during natural pauses in dialogue.

Video Description and Closed Captioning.  This section reinstates the FCC’s modest regulations on video description. Those rules, originally promulgated in 2001, were struck down by a U.S. Court of Appeals for lack of FCC authority.  This section also authorizes the FCC to promulgate additional rules to (1) ensure that video description services can be transmitted and provided over digital TV technologies, (2) require non-visual access to on-screen emergency warnings and similar televised information and (3) increase the amount of video description required.

This section also adds a definition for video programming to include programming provided by, or generally considered comparable to programming provided by, a television broadcast station, even when distributed over the Internet.  This will make sure that existing closed captioning obligations (and future video description obligations) apply to television-like video programming that is distributed or re-distributed over the Internet.  It tasks the FCC with creating captioning rules for three types of television-like programming on the Internet: (1) pre-produced programming that was previously captioned for television viewing; (2) live television-like video programming; and (3) new programming provided by or generally considered to be comparable to programming provided by multichannel programming distributors (such as cable or satellite subscription TV services).  This section is intended to ensure the continued accessibility of video programming to Americans with disabilities, as this programming migrates to the Internet.

User Interfaces.  This section requires devices used to receive or display video programming, including devices used to receive and display Internet-based video programming, to be accessible by people with disabilities so that such individuals are able to access all functions of such devices related to video programming (such as turning these devices on and off, controlling volume and select programming).  The section contains requirements for (1) audio output where on-screen text menus are used to control video programming functions, and (2) a conspicuous means of accessing closed captioning and video description, including a button on remote controls and first level access to these accessibility features when made available through on-screen menus.

Access Video Programming Guides and Menus.  This section requires multichannel video programming distributors (such as cable or satellite subscription TV services) to make their navigational programming guides accessible to people who cannot read the visual display, so that these individuals can make program selections.