November will mark my second anniversary as FCC Chairman. On this occasion, our open meeting agenda reflects the very same priorities I spoke about on my first day. From the outset I’ve spoken about the Commission’s responsibility to uphold the core values that have historically defined our communications networks, what I call the Network Compact. Two of those core values are access and public safety, and each will be featured at our upcoming meeting.
If you’re looking for evidence of communications technology’s power to save lives, look no further than the events of July 1, 2013 in East Windsor, Connecticut. A tornado swept through town, tearing apart an inflatable indoor soccer dome and blowing parts onto the nearby highway. Literally two minutes before the tornado hit, the soccer dome was filled with 29 children and five camp counselors. With moments to spare, they were evacuated to an adjoining building where they sought shelter. The reason they knew to seek cover was that the manager of the summer camp received an alert from the National Weather Service on her phone saying a tornado was headed her way, and she responded immediately.
The reason she received that warning was because the FCC and FEMA, working with the wireless industry, established the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system to deliver critical information to Americans on their wireless phones. Typical messages include severe weather information and Amber Alerts. Now that stakeholders have a few years’ experience with the service, we can make it even better.
Today, I’m circulating a proposal to make Wireless Emergency 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 state and local authorities to send these messages. WEA has already saved lives. It only makes sense to try to expand its use and increase its effectiveness.
Access is another core tenet of the Network Compact, and that’s why the FCC has a responsibility to make communications technology more accessible to Americans with disabilities.
Since 2003, the Commission’s wireless hearing aid compatibility rules have sought to ensure that Americans with hearing loss have access to telephone service through a wide array of wireless handsets and other devices used for voice communications. Until now, the hearing aid compatibility rules have been focused on handsets used with traditional cellular networks and have only required accessibility for a fractional subset of devices. Individuals with hearing loss should not be relegated to specific services based on how such services are provided and deserve to have the same mobile communications options as other consumers.
Next month, the Commission will consider rules that would 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 forms of voice communication. If adopted, this action would cover emerging technologies such as Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE as well as those that may develop in the future.
In addition to these rules, the Commission will lay the groundwork for future improvements by calling on 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 better way to consider and implement accessibility at the front end of the handset-design process, millions of Americans with hearing loss will benefit. The draft item makes clear that a consensus solution is the preferred path forward, but the Commission will also seek comment on whether there are other steps it might take to ensure 100 percent of handsets are hearing aid compatible at the same time as promoting innovation and investment. These goals are not mutually exclusive.
Just as we want to make phones more accessible to Americans with hearing aids, we want to make video content more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Thanks to FCC rules, video devices with “talking menus” and “talking guides” will be available to consumers by December of next year, and these devices will dramatically simplify the ability of individuals who are blind and visually impaired to view television programming. At our November meeting, we will take further steps to ensure that individuals who are blind or visually impaired can more easily access video programming on the increasing number of devices used to view video programming. In particular, our new rules would require covered manufacturers and MVPDs to inform consumers about which accessible devices and features are available and how to use them. We also take additional steps to ensure that consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing can more easily activate closed captioning features.
I’m pleased see the Commission continue to take steps to uphold the Network Compact, and thank the Commission staff for their work on these items.