Wide-ranging legislation looks to expand access for blind and visually-impaired across the 21st Century communications videoscape.

Get set for a new set of sweeping changes cutting across all components of the communications universe, broadband and broadcast alike. On October 8, President Obama signed the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010  (21CenComVidAccAct) into law. The new law dramatically expands disability access law to include accessibility requirements for a wide range of equipment and services, such as VoIP phones, browser-enabled smartphones, email and text messaging services, webcasts of TV programs, video and navigation devices, and others. 

While the debate over the FCC’s authority to generally regulate broadband rages on, in this area at least the discussion is over. As one FCC official noted during a panel discussion on broadband adoption, the 21CenComVidAccAct “ventures into broadband access like no legislation ever has” by giving the FCC an “enormous mandate” to ensure that various communications are accessible to people with disabilities.

And the implications of the Act may go beyond communications-for-the-disabled policy. 

The Act provides a mandate separate and apart – and in addition to – the Commission’s general regulatory authority over telecommunications common carriers, broadcasters, and cable services.  As a result, the FCC will now be able to regulate many different types of entities and activities, but only to the extent that they entail communications for the disabled. Could this trailblazing measure open the door for other types of broadband regulation not necessarily tied to disability? That remains to be seen, but the potential cannot be denied.

Don’t look for any changes to happen right away, though – even the changes specifically addressed in the Act. The statute lays out a number of timelines for the Commission, all of which expect the FCC to get started right away, but most of which do not contemplate final action for at least a year (and in many cases, several years).

Virtually every segment of the broadcasting and telecommunications industries that has anything to do with broadband or video programming will be affected. Key provisions include:

  • Manufacturers and service providers of “advanced communications services and equipment” – that is, interconnected and non-interconnected VoIP, electronic messaging services (e-mail, text messaging), and video conferencing – must ensure that their equipment or service is accessible to individuals with disabilities. 
  • Internet browsers provided by a manufacturer or provider of mobile phones must be usable by the blind or visually impaired, including the ability to launch the browser.
  • TV programs that are re-broadcast over the Internet must retain closed captioning. This provision may be more feasible now that software is becoming available to automatically convert existing closed-captioning for webcast versions of television shows. Internet-only TV shows and user-generated content are not required to have closed captioning. As an aside, however, it is getting easier for users to voluntarily provide closed captioning. Google has just introduced a YouTube feature that will enable content creators to add voice-recognition closed-captioning (we note that viewers can also use this feature to translate captions into various languages – extending its usefulness well beyond the disabled community). Google closed-captioning and translation functions are fresh out of beta and amusingly glitchy, but are a glimpse of things to come.
  • Hearing aid compatibility requirements are extended to anything that remotely resembles a telephone—that is, equipment “designed to provide 2-way voice communication via a built-in speaker intended to be held to the ear in a manner functionally equivalent to a telephone”.  (It will be interesting to see how the Commission squares this provision with its own proposed method of extending HAC to VoIP: i.e. defining a “telephone” as “anything that is commonly understood to be a telephone”.)
  • The Commission is required to reinstate its video description regulations (which were struck down by the D.C. Circuit in 2002).  Video description is a service that provides a voice-over description of the visual components of a video program (“as Bambi stands alone in the forest, a light snow starts to fall.”). The Commission’s initial video description rules, adopted in 2000 and tossed by the Court in 2002, were ginned up by the FCC without Congressional authorization. The lack of such authorization was fatal, according to the Court. That should not be a problem this time around, as the 21CenComVidAcc expressly provides the FCC all the authority it should need.
  • The Commission must require video programmers and distributors to convey emergency information to the blind and visually impaired. The FCC is also authorized to promulgate regulations to ensure access by individuals with disabilities to an IP emergency network.  
  • Video display apparatus must be able to display closed captioning, video description, and emergency information.  Devices that record video must enable the pass-through of such information.
  • Accessibility functions, including those on navigation devices such as converter boxes, must be easier to activate. Advocates of the legislation cited circumstances in which a blind user, for example, would have to navigate multiple (visual) menus before being able to activate a voice feature.
  • Telecommunications Relay Service funding will be available to support programs to distribute equipment designed to make telecommunications service, Internet access service, and advanced communications services accessible by individuals who are deaf-blind.

An ambitious array of administrative errands, to be sure. But don’t worry – the FCC will have some help, because Congress has ordered it to establish a couple of “advisory committees” to assist in the development of the regulations mandated by the Act. The FCC’s first order of business will be to form the committees, dubbed (ruh roh – Potential Confusion Ahead!) the “Emergency Access Advisory Committee” and the separate and distinct “Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee”. Both must be established by December 8, 2010. They will then proceed to investigate and survey and do the kinds of things that advisory committees do, including especially making recommendations.

As far as substantive rule changes go, 21CenComVidAccAct specifies that the video description rules must be reinstated by October 8, 2011 (although compliance will be phased-in over a period of several years). The closed captioning decoding regs are due within six months of the Advisory Committee report on closed captioning (estimate somewhere between October, 2011 and April, 2012 for those rules). Additional rules will be developed in due course.

With all these irons in the fire, we can expect a slew of documents to come out of the FCC in the relatively near-term as it works its way through the honey-do list that Congress has thoughtfully passed along. Check back here for updates.