FCC Proposes Extending Accessible Alerts to Second Screens

The FCC has proposed to make TV Everywhere emergency information "accessibility everywhere" as well.

At its May open meeting Friday, the FCC voted unanimously (with some partial dissents from the Republicans) to require cable operators and other MVPDs to make emergency alert information accessible to the sight-impaired when their traditional programming lineups are accessed on second screens like tablets and phones.

Cable ops had been lobbying to confine that second-screen requirement to second screens in the home, but the FCC chose not to limit it. "The new rules apply when MVPDs permit consumers to access linear programming on tablets, smartphones, laptops, and similar devices over the MVPD’s network as part of their MVPD services," said an FCC spokesperson. "This more clearly delineates the services subject to the rule than a formulation that focuses on whether the services are provided “in the home.”

The tablet and smart phone emergency alert accessibility requirement does not extend to video that originates over-the-top, only to second-screen access to traditional cable service.

MVPDs will have two years to make sure that any application or plug-in cable ops provide to their customers to access traditional linear cable channels via second screens can pass through "audible emergency information provided in a secondary audio stream."

Cable operators had also asked that the FCC to make the mandate of operator-supplied apps proscriptive, which the FCC agreed to do, which means it will not require retrofitting aps in use prior to the impementation date.

The move was another step in the FCC's ongoing implementation of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).

Also approved was a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) teeing up other issues, including whether to require school closing information to be audibly rendered and whether MVPDs should be responsible for insuring those second screens can easily access the information.

Republican commissioners took issue with the NPRM's suggestion that MVPDs need to make sure that second screen devices can easily access that information, saying the idea was laudable, but that the mandate exceeded the commission's authority, as did a mandate on manufacturers.

They also said the FCC did not have the authority to mandate that manufacturers make the accessibility feature reasonably comparable to a button, key or icon, citing the same lack of authority issue.

Commissioner Michael O’Reilly said that cable operators were already innovating on the accessibility front. He cited new products he had seen at INTX. He said they highlighted “an industry putting a lot of time, talent and investment into making the benefits of its products accessible to all and pushing the edge with technological innovations far outside the limits of the commission’s mandates.”

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said that while it might not be headline-grabbing, his FCC would continue to take the steps necessary to make communications accessible to all Americans. He said that extending the emergency alert accessibility to second screens would provide “a few extra seconds of warning at a time when seconds count.”

Also at the meeting, the commission voted unanimously, and without dissents, to temporarily extend the iCanConnect National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, which was created by CVAA and was set to expire June 30—and to propose making it permanent. The program subsidizes equipment to make advanced telecommunications accessible to those with both sight and hearing loss.

A trainer and user of the equipment, Eddie Martinez Jr. appeared as a witness and demonstrated it by emailing chairman Wheeler, who promptly emailed back.

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.