Senate Commerce Approves Telecom Disability Update Bill


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

The bill, okayed on July 13, 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 -- the 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.

Part of 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 legislation, 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 senior vice president 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."