FCC Making Emergency Info More Accessible to Visually-Impaired

On November 27, 2012, in News, by with SRA International

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on November 19, 2012 that seeks to make televised emergency information more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

FCC rules already require that visual emergency information presented in a regularly-scheduled newscast, or in a newscast that interrupts programming, must also be presented on the primary audio channel.  The new proposed rule would require that emergency information presented outside of a newscast, such as using a crawl message across the screen, must be accompanied by an audio tone and the details then presented aurally on a secondary audio stream.

This new capability was mandated in a law passed by Congress in 2010, called the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).  The FCC must adopt a new rule enabling aural access to video emergency information by April 9, 2013; the methodology of utilizing a secondary audio stream is the FCC’s proposed solution to this issue.  This is a logical choice, as the secondary audio channel is already the method that major-market TV stations are required to use in presenting Video Description, which is currently accessed by the visually impaired to receive these audio narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements inserted into natural pauses between the program’s dialogue.  By October 9, 2013, the FCC must also adopt new rules requiring devices that receive, play back, or record visual programming to provide access to both the aural emergency information and the Video Description narration.

In addition to TV broadcast stations, this new rule would also apply to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) that provide local emergency information, but not to IP-delivered video programming that is not otherwise an MVPD service.  MVPDs include cable operators, direct broadcast satellite providers, and Internet protocol television (IPTV) providers.  These MVPDs may not be generating the emergency information themselves, but must allow pass-through and access by their subscribers.  The FCC does acknowledge this grey area of IP-delivered video programming, and asks for comment on how non-traditional devices such as smartphones, tablets and video game consoles that access IP-based video might be treated.  The FCC points out that the CVAA refers to affected devices as “apparatus”, but does not define that term.

Note that this NPRM relates to emergency information that is not transmitted using the Emergency Alert System (EAS).  The NPRM is promulgated by the FCC Media Bureau, not the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau which oversees EAS, and the proposed rule changes are to the FCC Part 79 Closed Captioning and Video Description of Video Programming rules, not any FCC Part 11 EAS rules.

Nonetheless, there is one fleeting question regarding EAS in the NPRM.  As it regards putting aural details of emergency information on a secondary audio stream, the FCC states, “We seek comment on whether and how the proposals contained herein should apply to EAS alerts. For example, to what extent is emergency information provided as visual-only EAS alerts?”

In an issue familiar to those in the EAS community, the FCC asks if it should permit the use of text-to-speech (TTS) technology in generating this aural emergency information.  Of note is that the advisory committee set up by the CVAA “found TTS to be essential for conveying emergency information because of the speed with which it can generate the necessary audio”.  Considering that TV stations would need to acquire some system to generate this audio, there should be continued broadcaster interest in the TTS question again surfacing at the FCC.  Tied to this issue, the FCC seeks comment in an obscure footnote (#65) “if textual data is also transmitted as a separate file within the broadcast stream, it can also be made available for other assistive technologies and language translation systems”; it goes on to give examples.  Thus, more implications here for capabilities that TV stations would need to possess.

The FCC seeks comments on what should be detailed in these new rules: must the information presented aurally be verbatim to the text, must it be repeated, what requirements should apply to the aural description of visual but non-textual information such as maps?  Digital television (DTV) engineers may want to respond to the FCC’s questions on how to “label” the many uses of secondary audio streams in the current DTV architecture (starting at NPRM paragraph 24).  Finally, the Commission asks if there are “alternate means of compliance” with the CVAA mandate.  The advisory committee set up by the CVAA has some suggestions, and commenters are encouraged to provide input on those or introduce other ideas.

For those interested, there is a lengthy description in the NPRM of what the FCC defines as “emergency information”.  Another point of clarification highlights that while FCC Part 79 rules also require that any message presented aurally must be presented visually as well, the NPRM focused solely on the opposite case that visual alerts must be presented aurally, as that is the mandate in the CVAA.

For broadcasters and cable operators, although these new rules will not be mandated as part of EAS, those entities will nonetheless be required to install additional systems to accommodate these proposed rules and thus may wish to respond to this NPRM as seriously as any implementing EAS requirements.  Those who wish to comment on this NPRM will need to be quick once that clock starts rolling with the publishing of this NPRM in the Federal Register (FR).  Comments will be due 20 days after the NPRM is published in the FR, and Reply Comments will be due only 10 days after that initial Comment Period closes.

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