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FCC implements Disability-Access regulation, but gives operators time to comply

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given U.S. cable operators time, flexibility and the potential for waivers in implementing disability access legislation governing advanced communications services.

The federal agency, though, declined to exclude voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) and advanced devices that employ VoIP technology from the new rules. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association had requested for that exemption.

The FCC back in March sought comment on how to implement the advanced communications services portion of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which passed into law in October 2010 and gave the FCC a year to make guidelines for implementation of the changes.

The law revises Telecommunications Act disability-access provisions in a way that reflects the rise of broadband. Changes include reinstating the FCC's video description rules, which were tossed by a federal court last 1992, and applying closed captioning rules to online video as well as TV. The FCC also asked for more comment on important topics such as exempting smaller telco companies.

The FCC said Friday there will be a two-year phase-in of requirements that advanced communications services such as texting, interconnected and noninterconnected VoIP, and interoperable video conferencing be made easily accessible to the disabled by using closed captioning or video description.

As requested by a number of commenters, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the FCC stated it would allow service providers and manufacturers “as much flexibility to achieve compliance as possible, so long as each company does everything that is achievable in accordance with the achievability factors.”

The FCC believes that the accessibility requirements apply to noninterconnected VoIP systems; electronic messaging, including instant messaging; and interoperable video-conferencing services. But they don’t apply to blog posts, online publishing or messages on social-networking sites.

The accessibility requirements also will not apply to machine-to-machine communications like automatic software updates by update servers. However, the agency won’t grant “class” waivers for digital video players, IP-enabled TVs or gaming services and software.

The FCC agrees with NCTA that video mail accompanying video conferencing does not qualify as real-time video communications subject to the order. The NCTA had wanted all interconnected VoIP services to be covered under the previous disability access rules.

The FCC can fine violators up to US$100,000 per day for ongoing violation up to US$1 million per incident.