H.R. 3101: Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009

H.R. 3101

Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009

Sponsor
Rep. Edward J. Markey

Date
July 26, 2010 (111th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
Communications

Floor Situation

H.R. 3101 is expected to be considered on the floor of the House on Monday, July 26, 2010, under a motion to suspend the rules, requiring a two-thirds vote for passage. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) on June 26, 2009. The Committee on Energy and Commerce approved the bill by voice vote on July 21, 2010.

Bill Summary

H.R. 3101 would require that certain technologies be compatible with devices used by individuals with disabilities and attempts to increase access to technology through various funding and regulatory requirements.

Hearing Aid Compatibility & Relay Services:  The measure requires that equipment that enables voice communications, including equipment that enables advanced communications, be compatible with hearing aids.  The bill would require providers of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services to contribute to the Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) Fund.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that each common carrier providing voice transmission services provide Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) throughout the areas which it serves.  The cost of intrastate TRS services are recovered by the states, either through rate adjustments or surcharges on local telephone bills.  Costs for interstate TRS are recovered through a shared-funding mechanism (TRS Fund) set forth in FCC rules.  All providers of interstate telecommunications services contribute to the TRS Fund, and TRS providers recover the costs of providing interstate TRS from the TRS Fund on a minutes-of-use basis.

Access to Internet-Based Services & Equipment:  The bill would require makers of equipment used for advanced communications and providers of advanced communications services to ensure that their equipment and services are accessible, if doing so is achievable based on FCC guidelines.  The bill also requires the FCC to establish a clearinghouse of information on accessible products and services.

Video Description & Closed Captioning:  The bill would reinstate the FCC's video description rules that were eliminated by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002 (Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. vs. the Federal Communications Commission) and grants the FCC limited authority to expand upon those rules after a period of six years. 

The bill requires the FCC to issue regulations that would mandate the provision of closed captioning with video programming distributed over the Internet and requires video programming providers to convey emergency information in a manner that is accessible to individuals who are visually impaired.

Closed Captioning Decoder & Video Description Capability:  The bill would require the FCC to issue regulations that would ensure that equipment used to view video programming, including devices with small screens, would be capable of displaying closed captioning, passing-through video description services, and conveying emergency information.

User Interfaces on Digital Apparatus:  The bill would require that user interfaces for equipment used to view video programming be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Video Programming Guides & Menus on Navigation Devices:  The bill would require on-screen text menus and guides provided by navigation devices to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.  The bill permits cable and satellite providers to meet the requirements by providing a software or third-party solution to consumers, upon request and at no charge.

Funding For the Low-Income & Disabled:  H.R. 3101 would direct the FCC to establish rules that would provide up to $10 million per year from the TRS Fund to be distributed to low-income individuals who are deaf and blind for telecommunication service, Internet access and advanced communications, and long-distance and broadband service.

Limitation on Liability:  The bill would provide liability protection where a manufacturer or service provider is only acting as a broadband conduit or where a manufacturer or service provider is merely making the existence of third-party accessibility software known to consumers, as long as the manufacturer or service provider is not relying on such third-party software to make the product or service accessible.

Background

Congress last updated laws designed to provide access to communications devices by people with disabilities in 1996, with the Telecommunications Act (P.L. 104-104). In subsequent years, the communications marketplace has undergone a transformation driven by broadband, Internet-based and digital technologies. The benefits of many of these technologies, however, are often not accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The statutes and regulations that govern access to communications and video programming for persons with disabilities were enacted when voice communications were transmitted via traditional telephone lines, and television was broadcast using analog signals. Current statutory provisions cover the accessibility of traditional telephone service, the compatibility of hearing aids with telephones, closed captioning for video programming transmitted by broadcast or pay television, and service on televisions with screens larger than 13 inches.

This legislation represents an attempt to increase access for individuals with disabilities to new and prevalent technologies such as text messaging, smartphones and video conferencing.

Cost

The Congressional Budget Office has not produced a score for this bill as of press time.