Senate Commerce OK's Telecom Disability Update Bill

Proposed changes would improve access to reflect rise of broadband

The
Senate Commerce Committee Thursday approved by voice vote S. 3304, the Equal
Access to the 21st Century Communications Act.

The
bill takes a number of steps to update the Telecommunications Act disability
access provisions to reflect the rise of broadband. According to Committee
Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) it will "expand the availability of
hearing aid-compatible phones; develop ways to provide equal access to 911
communications emergency services; and expand and update requirements regarding
closed captioning and video descriptions."

That
includes reinstating the FCC's video description rules, which were tossed by a
court in 1992, and applying closed captioning rules to online video as
well as TV.

A
House version of the bill has passed the Communications Subcommittee, but a
full House Energy & Commerce Committee markup has not been held, though a
source said the goal was to do so before the August recess. Committee Chairman
Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has said he would like to get it done by the end of
this month to coincide with the July 26 20th anniversary of the Americans with
Disabilities Act.

The
cable and consumer electronics industries, which support the disability access
goals of the bill, continue to work with committees in both Houses about the
specifics of the bills, including deadlines for meeting video description and
online closed captioning requirements and how devices like smartphones and
other mobile video products can be made more accessible without discouraging
innovation or investment in those products.

The
Consumer Electronics Association has warned that a bill with onerous
technological mandates or too broad a definition of disability would be
unworkable.

Sen.
John Kerry (D-Mass.), one of the bill's co-sponsors, said the bill reflected
changes to make it more palatable to industry stakeholders, and pointed to
letters of support from telcos that he had entered into the record.

Among
the language he said would make the bill "less burdensome" included
the FCC taking into account "the nature" of a device and service. It
also allows for exemptions where industry can show that the mandate would be
"economically burdensome or are technically infeasible."

Kerry
referenced the hours of negotiation on the bill and said he thought it should
be able to be passed in short order. He said it was unacceptable that a blinded
veteran could not fully access TV descriptions, including for emergency
information. "That is remedied in this legislation," he said.

Sen.
John Ensign (R-Nev.) said there was still work to be done on the bill, but said
changes made to the original bill, including an amendment he introduced, would
go a long way toward giving manufacturers and service providers the
flexibility to continue to innovate.

The
National Cable & Telecommunications Association praised the spirit of the
bill, and Ensign's efforts.

"Today's
action by Chairman Rockefeller and members of the Senate Commerce Committee
significantly advances our shared goal of improving the accessibility of
communications services and equipment in the 21st Century," said NCTA
President Kyle McSlarrow. "We commend S. 3304's principal sponsors,
Senators Pryor, Kerry and Dorgan, for the substantial improvements and clarifications
made to the bill.  We also applaud Senator Ensign for his efforts in
helping to promote consensus around identifiable and achievable goals.  We
will continue to work constructively with the Senate and House committees and
the entire Congress as this important legislation moves forward."

"This
month marks the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities
Act," said Verizon SVP Peter Davidson. "What better time for
Congress to update the act and improve access to new communications technologies. The
Senate Commerce Committee's action on the Twenty-First Century Communications
Act is very good news. We thank Senators Mark Pryor and John Kerry for
their leadership and willingness to work with all stakeholders."  

"We
appreciate the efforts of the bill sponsors and Senator[s] Ensign and Cantwell
to improve the bill by addressing a number of industry
concerns," said the Consumer Electronics Association in a
statement. "During the mark up, committee members noted that more work
needs to be done to address outstanding concerns prior to full Senate
consideration. We support the goal of ensuring that all Americans can reap
the benefits of new and emerging technologies. We look forward to working
with the Committee to provide hearing- and visually impaired Americans access
to technology without imposing government-mandated design standards that chill
innovation."