FCC Applies Accessibility Requirements to Advanced Services

FCC said Friday there will be a two-year phase-in of requirements that advanced communications services (ACS) -- texting and VoIP, interconnected and non-interconnected, and interoperable video conferencing - asked be made accessible to the disabled (closed captioning or video description, for example).

The FCC granted service providers and others flexibility in meeting that mandate, but declined to include multipurpose devices that included VoIP from the new requirements.

The FCC back in March sought comment on how to implement the advanced communications services portion of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which passed in October 2010 and gave the FCC a year to come up with rules for implementation of the changes, which updates the Telecommunications Act disability access provisions to reflect the rise of broadband, including reinstating the FCC's video description rules, which were tossed by a court in 1992, and applying closed captioning rules to online video as well as TV.

The ACS implementation came in a Report and Order. An accompanying Notice of Further Rulemaking sought input on a number of related issues, including whether the FCC should clarify that Internet browsers are generally subject to the accessibility requirements and whether small businesses, including manufacturers and advanced service providers likes smaller telcos, should get exemptions.

The FCC concluded that the accessibility requirements apply to non-interconnected VoIP, electronic messaging, including instant messaging, and interoperable video conferencing services, but not to blog posts, online publishing or messages on social networking sites. The accessibility requirements also will not apply to machine-to-machine communications like automatic software updates.

The FCC will not grant "class" waivers for digital video players, IP-enabled TV's and gaming services and software.

As requested by a number of commenters, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the FCC said it would afford service providers and manufacturers "as much flexibility to achieve compliance as possible, so long as each does everything that is achievable in accordance with the achievability factors," said the commission. It also agreed with NCTA and others that the video mail accompanying video conferencing does not qualify as real-time video communications subject to the order, but asks in the further notice whether it should use ancillary authority to require video mail or recording and playback of video conferences to be made accessible.

But it did not go along with NCTA and telco arguments that multipurpose devices that included VoIP should remain subject to previous Communications Act (Sec. 255) accessibility requirements adopted in 1996.

"Implementing a mixed regime, in which multi-purpose products were potentially subject to both section 255 and section 716 [new requirements under CVAA], would needlessly create confusion, increase administrative costs, and lead to conflicts between the two sections," NCTA had argued.

"If multipurpose devices such as smartphones were subject exclusively to Section 255, then the advanced communications services components of smartphones, which are not subject to Section 255, would not be covered by Section 716," the FCC responded in rejecting that suggestion. "There would be no requirement to make the advanced communications services components of multipurpose devices such as smartphones accessible to people with disabilities. Such an approach would, therefore, undermine the very purpose of the CVAA."

Per CVAA, the FCC can fine violators up to $100,000 per day for ongoing violation up to $1 million per incident. It said in the order that it will employ "the full range of sanctions and remedies available."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.