Skip to main content

Cable Ops Seek Time, Flexibility to Improve Online Access for Disabled

Cable operators applaud the spirit of H.R. 3101, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009, but a National Cable & Telecommunications Association executive plans to tell a House Communications Subcommittee panel June 10 that the letter of that proposed law should be adjusted to give cable operators the "time and flexibility" to comply with its directives.

The bill is an effort to apply the rules on access to communications services for the disabled to the new world of increasing broadband video and audio delivery. That bill includes closed captioning, video description, access to emergency information, and more.

According to a copy of his prepared testimony, NCTA EVP James Assey will make the point that cable operators already closed-caption their video programming--per FCC rules--and that they are "increasingly" captioning online programming, and even doing some video-described programming. But he argues that cable operators should be given sufficient time to develop solutions for accessibility to menus and program guides, like audible versions of both for the blind.

And while NCTA recognizes that the net is becoming a significant source of video programming, there remain "technical barriers" to preserving the captions when video programming is moved online. He said NCTA is confident that it can overcome the barriers, but that it should be given time to do so. "NCTA proposes that Internet captioning requirements be timed to reflect the ongoing standard-setting process," he said.

He points out that cable programmers and operators are members of an ad hoc Group in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) working on overcoming those barriers.

He also advocates phasing in the captioning obligations according to the difficulty involved -- for example, programming that is edited for online distribution (removal of commercials, replacement of music) that can take more time. "The bill should thus allow some necessary leeway to address some likely technical glitches and other unusual situations that may occur," he says.

Video description is more problematic. The bill proposes to reinstate FCC video description rules that were thrown out by an appeals court in 2002. Assey says the challenges there, both in TV and online, "are more difficult," though he says NCTA would support their reinstatement with some modifications, including more time, both for the industry to do it and for the FCC to study the issue and report back to Congress before it takes action.

The bill applies to providers of VoIP services, but NCTA points out that the VoIP provider and network provider may be entirely different entities with no direct contact. "[A]network operator may have no control over whether the application provider that is actually providing the communications service complies with accessibility requirements," he says. "Congress needs to clarify the respective accessibility responsibilities of IP network operators and applications providers -- or expressly direct the FCC to do so -- and ensure that network operators functioning solely as passive conduits for third party services providers are not made responsible for compliance by those providers."