Returning to Basics: Accessibility and Public Basic safety

November can mark my second anniversary as FCC Chairman. On this occasion, our open meeting agenda reflects the very same focal points I spoke about on my first day. From the outset I have spoken about the Commission’s responsibility to uphold the core values which have historically defined our communications networks, what I call the Network Small. Two of those core values are access and public safety, every will be featured at our upcoming meeting.

If you’re searching for evidence of communications technology’s power to save lives, look no further than the events of July 1, 2013 in Eastern Windsor, Connecticut. A tornado swept through town, tearing apart a good inflatable indoor soccer dome and blowing parts onto the close by highway. Literally two minutes prior to the tornado hit, the soccer dome was filled with 29 children and five camp counselors. With occasions to spare, they were evacuated for an adjoining building where they wanted shelter. The reason they knew to find cover was that the manager from the summer camp received an alert from the National Weather Service on her phone saying a tornado was headed the girl way, and she responded immediately.

The reason she received that will warning was because the FCC and FEMA, working with the wireless market, established the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system to deliver critical info to Americans on their wireless cell phones. Typical messages include severe weather conditions information and Amber Alerts. Since stakeholders have a few years’ experience with the service, we can make it better still.

Today, I’m circulating a proposal to make Wireless Crisis Alerts a more effective tool to communicate important information to the public. For example , we propose to increase the amount and type of information that can be included in alerts and to make it easier for condition and local authorities to send these text messages. WEA has already saved lives. This only makes sense to try to expand the use and increase its performance.

Access is another primary tenet of the Network Compact, and so the FCC has a responsibility to produce communications technology more accessible to Americans with disabilities.

Since 2003, the Commission’s wireless hearing aid compatibility rules have wanted to ensure that Americans with hearing reduction have access to telephone service through a wide range of wireless handsets and other products used for voice communications. Until now, the hearing aid compatibility rules are already focused on handsets used with traditional cellular networks and have only required convenience for a fractional subset of products. Individuals with hearing loss should not be relegated to specific services based on how such services are provided and deserve to have exactly the same mobile communications options as some other consumers.

Next month, the Commission will consider rules that could strengthen accessibility by Americans with hearing loss to emerging and future technologies and services by expanding the scope of our hearing aid compatibility requirements to all types of voice communication. If adopted, this action would cover emerging technologies like Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE in addition to those that may develop in the future.

In addition to these rules, the Commission will lay the research for future improvements by askin stakeholders to work collaboratively to develop a consensus plan for dramatically expanding the kinds of devices that Americans with hearing loss can use. If there is a great way to consider and implement accessibility in front end of the handset-design process, numerous Americans with hearing loss can benefit. The draft item makes clear that a consensus solution is the preferred path forward, but the Commission will likely seek comment on whether there are other techniques it might take to ensure 100 percent of handsets are hearing aid compatible at the same time as promoting innovation and investment decision. These goals are not mutually exclusive.

Just as we want to create phones more accessible to Americans with hearing aids, we want to create video content more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Thanks to FCC rules, video products with “talking menus” and “talking guides” will be available to consumers by December of next year, and these products will dramatically simplify the ability of people who are blind and visually impaired to view television programming. At our own November meeting, we will take additional steps to ensure that individuals who are blind or visually impaired can more easily accessibility video programming on the increasing amount of devices used to view video programming. In particular, our new rules might require covered manufacturers and MVPDs to inform consumers about which obtainable devices and features are available as well as how to use them. We also take additional steps to ensure that consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing may more easily activate closed captioning functions.

I’m pleased see the Commission continue to take steps to support the Network Compact, and say thanks to the Commission staff for their work on these items.

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