21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act in Plain Language – Part One

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act in Plain Language – Part One

Editor: You may have been hearing about the “21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act” introduced by Representative Markey. It is an attempt to bring Federal laws regarding accessibility for people with disabilities into the 21st century and we heartily support it. Here’s a “plain language” description of the bill from the folks at the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT). Do visit them at http://www.coataccess.org

This is part one of two parts.


June 2008

Telecommunications technologies have a proven ability to empower individuals with the necessary tools of the information age. These technological tools can animate the personal use of communications for work or enjoyment, but also impact health care delivery, educational opportunities, the prospects for employment, and job creation. The goal of the legislation is to establish new safeguards for disability access to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as technology changes and the United States migrates to the next generation of Internet-based and digital communication technologies.

Title I -Communications Access

Definitions. Section 101. -Adds definitions to the Act as follows:

Disability -This has the same meaning as in the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act.

Interconnected VoIP Service -This definition has the same meaning as in the FCC’s regulations.

IP-enabled communication service -This definition encompasses interconnected VolP service and includes transmission services that have the purpose of conducting voice, text, or video conversations, interactive voice response systems, and other similar communication-based services.

Hearing Aid Compatibility. See. 102. -Extends federal law that currently requires hearing aid compatibility on newly manufactured and imported telephones, to comparable customer premises equipment used to provide IP-enabled communication service. The purpose of this section is to make sure that people with hearing loss have access to telephone devices used with advanced technologies, including cell phones or any other handsets used for Internet-based voice communications. (This section is not intended to extend to headsets or headphones used with computers.)

Relay Services. Sec. 103. -This section clarifies that telecommunications relay services (TRS) are intended to ensure that people who have hearing or speech disabilities can use relay services to engage in functionally equivalent telephone communication with all other people, not just people without a hearing or speech disability. It revises Section 225 of the Act, which has been interpreted at times (by the FCC) to authorize only relay services between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. This section also expands the relay service obligation to contribute to the Telecommunications Relay Services Fund to all providers of IP-enabled communication services that provide voice communication.

Access to Internet-Based Services and Equipment. Sec. 104. -This section builds upon authority contained in Section 255 of the Communications Act, which generally requires telecommunications service providers, as well as interconnected VoIP providers and manufacturers, to make their services and equipment accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. This section creates new safeguards for Internet-based communications technologies (equipment, services and networks) to be accessible by people with disabilities, unless doing so would result in an undue burden. Where an undue burden would result, manufacturers and providers must make their equipment and services compatible with specialized equipment and services typically used by people with disabilities. The term “undue burden” has the same meaning given it in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This section also contains measures to improve the accountability and enforcement of disability safeguards under Section 255 and the new Section 255A, including directives for new FCC complaint procedures, reporting obligations for industry and the FCC, the creation of a clearinghouse of information on accessible products and services by the U.S. Access Board and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and directives for enhanced outreach and education by the FCC and NTIA.

Sec. 104 also clarifies that the transmission and receipt of text messages sent by radio to and from mobile wireless devices are telecommunications services, and therefore must comply with the accessibility obligations under Section 255 and the new accountability measures under Section 255B.

Universal Service. Sec. 105. -This section makes consumers with disabilities – as a distinct group – eligible to receive universal service support through two specific measures. First, it grants the FCC authority to designate broadband services needed for “phone communication” by people with disabilities as services eligible to receive support under the existing Lifeline and Linkup universal service programs. For example, this would include deaf individuals who are otherwise eligible for Lifeline and Linkup support, but who rely on Internet-based video relay services or point-to-point video for their telephone communications. Second, it grants authority to the FCC to designate programs that distribute specialized equipment used to make telecommunications and Internet-enabled communication services accessible to individuals who are deaf-blind, as eligible for universal service support. Such support, however, is capped at $10 million per year.

Emergency Access and Real-Time Text Support. Section 106. This section contains a specific requirement for real-time text support, to ensure that people with disabilities, especially individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing or who have a speech disability, are able to communicate with others via text in an IP environment with the same reliability and interoperability as they receive via the public telephone network when using TTYs. A primary goal of this section is to ensure that individuals who rely on text to communicate have equal access to emergency services during and after the migration to a national IP-enabled emergency network.

Here’s part two!