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FCC Issues Video Programming Rule Requiring Navigation Devices be Accessible to Blind, Deaf

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The U.S. government has issued a rule requiring video equipment manufacturers—including the makers of devices used for streaming—and the producers of connected software ensure that the video-programming navigation devices in those products are “more easily” accessed by individuals who are blind or visually impaired, or who are deaf or hard of hearing.

On Oct. 31, the Federal Communications Commission issued a “report and order and further notice of proposed rulemaking” on “Accessibility of User Interfaces and Video Programming Guides and Menus” and “Access Emergency Information and Apparatus Requirements for Emergency Information and Video Description.”

The regulations listed in the document cover video “navigation devices” such as “converter boxes, interactive communications equipment, and other equipment used by consumers to access multi-channel video programming and other services offered over multi-channel video programming systems,” according to the document.

The FCC says such navigation devices includes devices that have a built-in capability to use a conditional access mechanism in order to access video programming and other services using a multi-channel video programming device (MVPD), the document says. Those devices include televisions, computers, and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones that do not have pre-installed MVPD applications and that have removable media players.

Among those impacted by the regulation include the makers of video equipment containing navigation devices that are sold to the general public, and software manufacturers who produce programs that are installed into those navigation devices and that display on-screen text menus and guides, the document says.

The producers of those items have a three-year deadline to comply, but a specific deadline date is not included in the document. However, while the entities governed by the rule have three years to comply, they must also provide accessible navigation devices to requesting blind or visually impaired individuals “within a reasonable time,” the document says. The FCC defines a reasonable time as the period it takes such an entity to generally provide navigation devices to other consumers, according to the report and order.

The changes in the way “Americans watch video” have created the need for this new regulation, says FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn. “The modern television is connected to an array of set-top boxes, video game systems, and removable media players that allow consumers to view online video, cable, and satellite video, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs.

“Companies in all sectors constantly develop new solutions for consumers to use when navigating this universe of content and viewing video, but consumers with disabilities have often been left behind because too few of these options are accessible to them. With this order, we adopt rules that fulfill Congress’ goal of making these solutions available to all,” she says.

Clyburn adds that the order was “carefully written” to ensure that equipment manufacturers and cable and satellite providers have the flexibility to comply with the rule “in ways that make sense for them.”

However, because the new regulation is “complex,” the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents the consumer electronics industry, is reviewing the new rules “in detail,” said Julie Kearney, the CEA’s vice president of regulatory affairs. However, the CEA has found the FCC implemented industry recommendations in the rule, according to Kearney. “On initial review, the FCC has followed many industry recommendations in crafting the new rules,” she said in a statement.

In addition to the CEA, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors is also reviewing the document. Specifically, NATOA wants the regulation to require cable operators completely list local cable programming on their onscreen guides, according to Mitsuko Herrera, who handle special projects for Montgomery County, Md. and who is overseeing NATOA’s efforts on that issue.

Many cable providers list local programming on the onscreen guide under the general heading “local programs,” but they do not actually provide a program description, Herrera said. NATOA wants the FCC to use the regulation to require cable providers to provide those descriptions, she said.

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