21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

The “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act” (CVAA) establishes new protections to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as consumers migrate to the next generation of Internet-based and digital communication technologies.  The following provisions are of particular interest to our community:

Title I – Communications Access

Relay Services and Telecommunications

The CVAA 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 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had interpreted to authorize only relay services between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. It now allows communication between and among different types of providers. It also expands the relay service obligation to contribute to the Telecommunications Relay Services Fund to all providers of Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled communication services that provide voice communication.

Access to Internet-Based Services and Equipment

The CVAA 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.  It 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. It 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 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Universal Service

The CVAA categorizes consumers with disabilities as 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 DeafBlind as eligible for universal service support.  Such support, however, is capped at $10 million per year.

On March 31, 2016,  the FCC voted to expand Lifeline to include broadband access. The Report and Order requires unlimited minutes for mobile voice service, effective December 1, 2016, while it phases in minimum standards for mobile broadband service, starting at 500 MB per month of 3G data, increasing to 2GB per month by the end of 2018. The problem with this very low floor of 500 MB per month is that each deaf or hard of hearing would get about an hour’s worth of videophone and VRS usage. The NAD continues to advocate with the FCC to require Lifeline providers to provide a plan to the deaf and hard of hearing people that will enable them to use videophone calls to the same extent as hearing Lifeline consumers use voice minutes.

Emergency Accessibility

The CVAA directs the FCC to pass rules requiring that emergency information is accessible. Video programming distributors are required to provide closed captioning for any emergency information provided in the audio track of the video signal.


Hearing Aid Compatibility (HAC)

The CVAA aims to ensure that hard of hearing people with hearing aids and cochlear implants have access to telephone devices used with advanced communication services, including cell phones or any other handsets used for Internet-based voice communications, and can access the same range of wireless handsets as anyone else. In 2016, the NAD, Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI), and the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) worked with wireless industry representatives of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), and CTIA on a Joint Consensus Proposal. On September 21, 2016, the FCC adopted a Report and Order to implement the proposed changes to the wireless hearing aid compatibility rules. The new rules require manufacturers and service providers to make more hearing aid compatible phones available to consumers.

Video Programming

Devices and User Interfaces

The CVAA expands the scope of devices that must display closed captions under the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 from its 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.  It also requires cables to carry (from the device to the television set) the information necessary to permit the display of closed captions.  The rules further require covered devices to enable consumers to adjust closed captions in a variety of ways, including color, size, font, opacity, and so forth.

The CVAA 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. Devices designed to record television programs must pass through closed captions so that the user can turn on/off the closed captions when the program is played back. It contains requirements for a conspicuous means of accessing closed captioning, including a button key, or icon (simple mechanism) for turning on/off closed captioning and first level access to accessibility features when made available through on-screen menus.

Closed Captioning

The CVAA also expands video programming to include programming distributed over the Internet. It makes clear that existing closed captioning obligations also apply to video programming that is distributed or re-distributed over the Internet. If the video programming is closed captioned on television, it is required to be closed captioned when shown on the Internet as well. The CVAA tasks the FCC with creating captioning rules for three types of three types of programming: (1) pre-produced programming that was previously captioned for television viewing; (2) live 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). These updates ensure the continued accessibility of video programming for the deaf and hard of hearing community as programming migrates to the Internet.