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Sources: FCC Nixes Voice-Activated Caption Option

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has scheduled a vote for Nov. 19 on a trio of items related to video accessibility for the hearing impaired. And, according to agency sources familiar with the proposal, it is a split decision for cable and consumer-electronics companies seeking more flexibility than the FCC was willing to give.

The FCC describes the “Accessibility of User Interfaces” item as a Second Report and Order, an Order on Reconsideration, and a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to “provide consumers with better information about the availability of accessible devices and features, and create easier access to video programming and closed captioning on devices.”

According to sources, the report and order concludes that voice activation is not “reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon” for accessing closed captioning for the hearing impaired, while the reconsideration order confirms that activation via gestures is reasonably comparable for accessing captions.

The FCC had suggested both might be acceptable. But groups representing deaf people had asked it to reconsider allowing either voice commands or gesture controls as compliant. Those groups argued that gestures might be problematic for people with mobility issues and voice commands for those who do not speak at or do not speak clearly.

The items apply to accessing traditional programming content on TV sets, some mobile devices, DVDs, set-tops and cable modems.

The further notice tentatively concludes that the FCC has the authority to require manufacturers and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to insure consumers can easily access user display settings for closed captioning, something the National Cable & Telecommunications Association argued was not anticipated in the statute.

“A subscriber that utilizes closed captioning may opt to change user settings only infrequently,” the trade group had told the FCC, “so requiring a mechanism for the selection of additional menu features that are not commonly used risks making the activation process more complicated, not less.”

The Consumer Electronics Association had argued that the FCC would be fully justified in holding that voice and gesture commands are two examples of compliant mechanisms that covered entities may choose in order to satisfy the “reasonably comparable” requirement.”

The items are all part of the FCC’s ongoing implementation of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Accessibility to communications has been a signature issue for FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.