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The Communications Act of 1934 governs electronic communications In the United States and established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the regulating body over such communications. It was later reauthorized via the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which provided the first major overhaul of telecommunications policy in the U.S. in nearly 62 years. Among other achievements, it sought to promote the availability of telecommunications services and equipment to underserved populations, including people with disabilities. Two provisions were added to the Act which solely focus on access by people with disabilities. Section 255 mandates that all manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services design and develop such equipment and services to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. Section 713 seeks to make video programming accessible to individuals with hearing disabilities by directing the FCC to pass closed captioning requirements for television programming. These and other provisions of the Communications Act were further updated by the CVAA.

Section 255 Rules

The FCC issued rules to implement Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act which are codified in 47 CFR part 6 and 47 CFR Part 7. They apply to telecommunications equipment manufacturers, service providers, carriers, interconnected VoIP service providers and interconnected VoIP equipment manufacturers. These rules are based on the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines created by the United States Access Board as contained in 36 CFR 1193. They require that telecommunications equipment and services be designed, developed and fabricated to be accessible to individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. The FCC defines readily achievable as “with reasonable effort or expense.” These requirements apply to wired and cellular telephone equipment and services such as pagers, fax machines, modems, PBX switches, IVR systems, voicemail and caller ID. They also apply to interconnected VoIP products, services and carriers that permit use of the Internet for calls carried over the Public Switch Telephone network (PSTN) such as Skype, Vonage, Magic Jack, cable, satellite and fiber optic carriers that offer telephony over IP, equipment and handsets used with such services. (Noninterconnected VoIP is covered under the Advanced Communications Services rules in Section 716 of the Communications Act.) when such services or equipment cannot be made accessible, they must be made compatible with existing peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. In reality this would mean that if a telecommunications product or service cannot be made accessible natively, it can be made so by interfacing with assistive technologies or other devices commonly used by individuals with disabilities. Telecommunications carriers are obligated to ensure that their networks comply with these guidelines and standards, that all accessibility information such as TTY signals are passed through to the consumer over the network, and to avoid installing any barriers that impede accessibility.

As with the rules for Advanced Communications Services, manufacturers and service providers must evaluate the accessibility, usability and compatibility of covered equipment and services as early and consistently as possible throughout product design, development and fabrication and must identify barriers to accessibility. Individuals with disabilities must be included as part of market research, product design, testing, pilot demonstrations and product trials when such activities are undertaken as deemed appropriate by the manufacturer. Individuals with disabilities and disability-related organizations must also be consulted to validate unproven access solutions through user testing. SSB BART Group employs technologists with disabilities and possesses the technical capability and expertise to provide consultation and user testing for telecommunications products and services and the infrastructure to support telecommunications accessibility obligations and best practices through AMP.

Coverage of Section 255 requirements extend to telecommunications products and services accessed via Internet Protocol. This includes websites used to access telecommunications features and services, mobile applications, and support documentation and services. In performing validation of the accessibility of these assets, SSB performs technical conformance testing against relevant accessibility standards as well as functional testing using technologists with disabilities and leading assistive technologies.

Enforcement

Section 255 regulations are enforced via the complaint process. Any person may file a formal or informal complaint with the FCC against a covered entity alleging a violation of FCC rules. The FCC issued new complaint procedures which are contained in the rules and went into effect on October 8, 2013. The Commission may also conduct inquiries and hold proceedings of its own accord to enforce the Commission’s rules.

The CVAA created Section 717 of the Communications Act, which directs the FCC to impose recordkeeping obligations on entities covered under Sections 255, 716 and 718 of the Act. These obligations are further described and discussed in the CVAA Series: Recordkeeping post and other posts in this series.

Update to the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines

On February 18, 2015, the Access Board issued a proposed rule to update the Section 508 accessibility standards and the Telecommunications Act Section 255 Accessibility Guidelines. Public comments may be submitted on the proposed rule until May 28, 2015. The two most notable changes include the requirement to provide real-time text and the ability to provide wideband speech capability. An in-depth discussion of the proposed changes are being provided in the Understanding the Proposed Section 508 Refresh series on the blog. Stay tuned to the series for further information and discussion.

Coming Up

In future posts in this series, I will explore the requirements for Telecommunications Relay Services Blog and next-generation 911 services.