Working with the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee

Working with the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee

By Cheryl Heppner

March 2010

Editor: You probably know that Cheryl Heppner of NVRC is one of the most prolific and effective advocates for folks with hearing loss. I can’t begin to keep track of all her activities. Fortunately for me (and you), she often records some of her recent activities and shares that record with those of us in the hearing loss community. Here’s here latest report. We appreciate NVRC’s permission to share this report.

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Some of you may know that I was reappointed last year to serve as a representative of NVRC on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Consumer Advisory Committee. The FCC’s work is very important to NVRC in its quest for accessible communication, whether by wired and wireless telephone with telecommunications relay services like IP relay, captioned telephone and VRS, television with captioning, or emergency 9-1-1 calls by voice, video or text, or many more technologies.

During the last year there have been a lot of changes at the FCC. There’s a new Chairman, Julius Genachowski. Two veteran Commissioners, Michael Copps and Robert McDowell, have been joined by new appointees Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell Baker. Other people in positions of great responsibility, such as the chiefs of the bureaus, have also changed, and so have many of the staff. Thomas Chandler, who has been heading the Disability Rights Office at the FCC, will soon return to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Disability Working Group

The latest meetings of the Consumer Advisory Committee were held last Thursday and Friday. The committee’s Disability Working Group, which I co-chair with Eric Bridges of the American Council for the Blind, met for almost two hours. Lise Hamlin of HLAA, Claude Stout of TDI were there, and Karen Peltz Strauss, soon to become a Deputy Bureau Chief, was there to listen in. Our discussion focused on what we believe should be the top priorities for the FCC to address during the coming weeks and months. We touched on a long list of topics such as setting standards for the quality of television captioning and video description, the process of setting reimbursement rates for telecommunications relay services, ensuring access to televised emergency information by those who are blind or visually impaired, and the need for the agency to update and implement new rules and regulations for today’s technology.

It’s almost overwhelming to look at the backlog of things NVRC has worked on with the FCC that still haven’t been addressed. Does anybody remember how much time and energy we spent working with other organizations to submit what we called the “caption quality petition” more than 5 years ago? Or our work to get the word out about the FCC’s granting exemptions from captioning, while working to get that decision reversed? No action has been taken to address the petition to improve caption quality, and over 700 waivers are still in effect.

Our working group also talked about the need to work more closely with the companies that make the equipment we use to watch television so we can be sure the new technologies are still accessible to us. The first 3-D televisions are rolling onto shelves at stores like Best Buy, and we don’t yet know how they will work with captioning. One individual who has given presentations on 3-D television issues calls 3-D TVs “the most dangerous TV ever made,” and lest you think he was talking about rogue captions, there are many other concerns. Some people get queasy watching movies in 3-D because our eyes and brains just aren’t wired for it.

And hey, while we’re celebrating how more members of the Consumer Electronics Association have listened to our plea for a caption button on each TV remote, it would be nice to cut down on hunting time by having the button’s location jump out right away or be in the same general location on every remote. If you travel a lot, I’m sure you’d also love to be able to do it without and get your captions without feeling like you’re in training to become an electronics engineer. It seems like every hotel television either has a different menu to get the captions or you have to get a tech person to come to your room with a master remote to turn them on.

Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

This was our first Consumer Advisory Committee meeting with the new Bureau Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Joel Gurin. How could I not like this guy? He and I come from the same background, journalism and nonprofit management. In his case, the nonprofit was on a much greater scale; he helped revolutionize Consumer Reports to bring its power to the Web and many was involved in many other advances. At the FCC, one of the most recent innovations has been FCC Connect, which is still being tested. Go to http://fcc.gov/connect/ and you’ll find 13 different ways you can keep in touch with the FCC’s actions and provide input. Click on one of them, OpenInternet.gov, to see blog discussions about the Open Internet proceeding. Clearly the FCC is setting a new standard for transparency and consumer input.

Mr. Gurin has a Consumer Task Force which consists of the chiefs of all seven of the FCC’s bureaus. His goal is to make the FCC a consumer-responsive consumer protection agency. One of the things the FCC has done is to go through old video footage and use the video’s closed captions to translate the information to other languages. Those complaints about the cost and time to put in ramps for wheelchairs evaporated once the world began discovering that they make life better for delivery people and those pushing baby strollers. Now there’s recognition of what we’ve said all along — our captions give a a valuable tool for many, many people who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing.

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