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House Energy & Commerce OKs Communications Disability Access Bill

The House
Energy & Commerce Committee Wednesday approved HR 3101, a bill that
updates disability access to

communications services elements of the 1996
Telecommunications Act, but with changes that address some of the

issues that industry had with the bill.

The legislation, the Twenty-First Century Communications
and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, now goes to the House floor for a
vote. A Senate version has already passed out of the Senate Commerce

Among other things, the bill requires the captioning of
any online video that is closed captioned on TV, and asks

the FCC to study captioning of Web-original video. It
also requires smart phones and other mobile devices to be

accessible to the disabled, if that is achievable, and
restores the FCC's video description rules thrown out by the

courts in 2002.

What passed Wednesday in the House committee was a
substitute bill reflecting talks with stakeholders, including

industry players, said Communications Subcommittee
Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass.), sponsor and driving force behind
the bill, outlined some of the changes that give industry

more flexibility. He pointed out that the new version now
exempts live or "near live" programming from video

description, provides program owners and distributors an
exemption from descriptions if they would be "economically

burdensome." And while it also expands the original top
25 market mandate for descriptions to all media markets, it

does that over six years, Markey pointed out, and gives
the FCC the ability to grant waivers for markets where it

deems that appropriate.

Applying the captioning only to TV shows on the net and
not original video was also a concession in the new bill.
Equipment manufacturers will be able to comply with
accessibility requirements both by imbedding the functions, "if

achievable," he pointed out, or alternately with
third-party solutions--software, add-ons--also if achievable,

Markey pointed out. 

"We made clear that the bill does not require
accessibility of every device for every disability," Markey said. That

had been one of the Consumer Electronics Association's
big issues with the original bill. That means that not all

devices have to offer all functions, for example.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), ranking Republican on the
Communications subcommittee had problems with the earlier

version of the bill, saying its scope was "extremely
broad." But he supported the new version, and spent some time

explaining why. He said a key change was the new language
"explicitly stating" that the "relevant sections shall not

be construed to require every feature and function of
every device or service to be accessible disability."

He said the new bill "creates goals rather than
technological mandates," including preventing the FCC from mandating

the use of proprietary technologies." Also important for
Stearns was the "achievable" threshold that "strikes a

balance between a the "readily achievable standard" in
the current law and the "undue burden" standard in the

original bill.

Stearns also applauded changes that meant proposed
accessibility measures relied more on advisory committees and

industry-developed standards subject to FCC oversight.
The bill also gives makers of mobile DTV devices another two

years to meet accessibility requirements, and three years
for smart phone makers to make their Internet browsers


While the new version of the bill allows the FCC to
expand the number of hours that have to be video described, it

won't get that authority for another decade, and must
first explain that proposal to Congress.
Stearns said he was still concerned that the bill does
not apply the same "achievable" standard to closed

captioning, video descriptions and emergency information
on devices with screens 13 inches and larger that it does

to smaller ones, but he pointed out that the FCC can
still grant waivers. "this legislation is not perfect and I

still have concerns," he said.

Rep. Rick
Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, also
pointed out that the FCC has the

authority to exempt small business like start-ups from
the accessibility requirements "to assure that these

requirements do not at all hinder the origination of
innovative companies."

trade association USTelecom gave a shout-out to the bill.

"We congratulate the Committee for passing this important
bill, which will help Americans with disabilities have greater access
to a wide range of communication technologies," said USTelecom President
Walter McCormick Jr. "We were delighted to
work with Representative Markey and the Committee to develop a bill
that provides a sound and sensible roadmap for achieving greater
accessibility, and we are proud to support the legislation."  

Also approved was a Markey amendment for the FCC to
distribute $10 million per year--paid by industry--for

technologies to help those who are blind and deaf. That
includes technology that translates the Web into brail,

pointed out Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) in supporting the

Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman
(D-Calif.) praised what he said was a bipartisan effort that was "the
way Congress ought to work."

Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow also 
applauded passage and praised the process, while suggesting the bill
could use a little more work.

"We applaud
Committee approval of H.R. 3101 and wish to thank Chairman Waxman and
Ranking Member Barton for establishing a constructive process that has
allowed all parties to share their views," he
said. "We appreciate that today's bill includes a number of
improvements to clarify obligations that focus on identifiable,
achievable goals.  We look forward to continuing to work constructively
with the Committee and all members of Congress on additional
ideas that can accomplish our shared goal of improving access for
persons with disabilities and providing greater certainty to affected

"We applaud the bipartisan action on the amended H.R. 3101, as it provides individuals with disabilities access to technology and allows innovators more flexibility than the bill as originally introduced,"said Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro, who had been arguably the toughest critics of the original bill. "The amended bill sets goals for accessibility; bars mandating proprietary technology; creates allowance for a small business exemption; no longer requires all manufacturers' products to be accessible if products in the product line are accessible; creates an achievable standard for most requirements and relies on industry input and expertise for standards. We remain hopeful that other industry concerns will be addressed further in the process, including a requirement that would ban the sale of all video display screens over 13 inches that are not technically capable of rendering emergency information and video description in an accessible manner."

Waxman and Boucher both said the were
hoping for swift floor action. They have been aiming for passage of a
bill in both the House and Senate as close as possible to the July 26
anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities