2010 Telecommunications Act

What the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010

Will Do for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

The legislation as signed into law by President Obama in October, 2010 will go into effect July 1, 2012:

  • requires advanced communications equipment and services to be accessible, if achievable. If not, then equipment and services must be compatible with devices used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if achievable. “Achievable” is defined as reasonable effort or expense, as determined by the FCC.
  • improves enforcement. The FCC must file regular reports with Congress and requires an enforcement study by the Comptroller General. It also adds record-keeping obligations for equipment manufacturers and service providers.
  • requires access to Internet services built-in to mobile telephone devices, like smart phones, if achievable.
  • requires a clearinghouse of information on accessible products and services, and public education and outreach.

Video (Audio) Description

  • One year after the bill becomes law, it restores FCC rules requiring 4 hours per week of video description on 9 television channels (top 4 broadcast networks and top 5 cable channels) in the top 25 most populated markets.
  • Two years after the bill becomes law, the FCC is required to report to Congress on video description.
  • After four years the bill permits the FCC to increase video description to 7 hours per week on 9 television channels.
  • After six years, the FCC is required to apply the video description requirements to the top 60 most populated markets (not just the top 25 most populated markets).
  • After nine years, the FCC is required to report to Congress on the need for additional markets to carry video description.
  • After 10 years, the bill permits the FCC to expand video description to 10 new markets annually to achieve 100 percent nationwide coverage.

The legislation requires video programming owners, providers, and distributors to make emergency information accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision.

Devices designed to receive or play back video programming, using a picture screen of any size, to be capable of delivering available video description, and making emergency information accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision.  Devices with picture screens less than 13” must meet these requirements if achievable with reasonable effort or expense.

Devices designed to record video programming (such as DVRs) must enable the rendering or pass through of video description and emergency information, so viewers can turn the video description on/off when played back on a screen of any size.

User Interfaces on Digital Apparatus

The legislation requires devices designed to receive or play back video programming:

  • to make controls of built-in functions accessible to and usable by individuals who are blind or have low vision, if achievable;
  • to provide access to video description features through a mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon designated for activating accessibility features.

Access to Video Programming Guides and Menus Provided on Navigation Devices.

Cable/satellite set-top box on-screen text menus and guides must be audibly accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision, if achievable.

Devices must provide access to built-in video description features through a mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon designated for activating the accessibility features.

Other important features:

The bill

    • allocates up to $10 million per year from the Interstate Relay Service Fund for equipment used by individuals who are deaf-blind.
    • establishes an Emergency Access Advisory Committee to recommend and for the FCC to adopt rules to achieve reliable and interoperable communications with future Internet-enabled emergency call centers.
    • establishes a Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee to make recommendations about video description, accessible emergency information, user interfaces, and video programming guides and menus.

      (excerpted by E.Bridges at the American Council of the Blind, October 2010.)


      A Brief History of Legislating Audio Description

      There is a long history on the subject of audio description for television, which is typically called video description.  The short version is that the FCC mandated it to start in April 2002, but their authority to do so was challenged successfully that same year, and for the next eight years measures got introduced in Congress to reinstate that authority, failing to get passed (probably because of tacked-on unrelated provisions) until the second half of 2010.

      The only good news during those years was that some networks continued to produce audio description tracks for some of their shows (many shows for PBS, a few for CBS, for example).  With the conversion to digital television, the problem of receiving the description increased immeasurably.

      Originally description was offered by a feature of analog televisions called Second Audio Program, or SAP.  By activating SAP via your remote, you could receive a secondary audio channel, replacing the primary one.  The audio channel could be a Spanish language translation of the audio, or it could be a version of the primary audio that had been modified with description overlaid.

      With the transition to digital TV in June of 2009, reception issues got significantly worse.  While an audio channel was designated for audio description on digital TVs years ago, without the mandate for description the TV manufacturers did little or nothing to allow access to the channel, and very few TV networks have offered a digital audio description feed.

      And then there is the question of the cable and satellite networks.  They need to take a network feed and rebroadcast it, then make it available through their own set-top boxes.  Historically, this has required costly additional equipment, and implementation has been spotty.

      Finally, Congress has given the FCC the authority to mandate it from broadcasters and (we believe) will require manufacturers to make the description channel easy to access on all new TVs.

      Thanks to the key committee for working on these problems:  the FCC Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Larry Goldberg of WGBH Media Access; and a key workgroup is the Video Description Pass-Thru Workgroup, co-chaired by Brad Hodges of the AFB.