In a move that has been eagerly anticipated by the disability community, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday submitted its National Broadband Plan to Congress. The 360-page plan, which lays out a vision for high-speed broadband that’s both affordable and accessible, has wide implications for American with disabilities.
Only 65 percent of American households are wired for high-speed Internet, making the U.S. a lagging player behind other nations such as South Korea. Meanwhile only 29 percent of people with disabilities in the U.S. have broadband service – a low number that’s partly due to the exorbitant cost of accessible tools for the Web. For instance, many assistive technologies – like Braille displays — are too expensive, costing upwards of $3,000.
While the agency unanimously agreed on the overall plan, there are more than 200 recommendations that will need to be approved separately, FCC officials said. The FCC is planning a series of about 40 notices of proposed rulemaking in coming months, and some recommendations in the plan will need action from the U.S. Congress.
For people with disabilities, these recommendations are proposed in Chapter 9: Adoption and Utilization, Section 9.5. There are four key ways in which the plan addresses disabilities and access issues.
1. Update Accessibility Laws. This is by far the most ambitious recommendation. In the plan, the FCC says it should work with Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice to “modernize” accessibility laws, rules and related subsidy programs to cover Internet Protocol (IP)-based communications and video-programming technologies.
This means to make sure that Internet services and equipment are accessible to people with disabilities, and that advanced devices, such smart phones, are hearing aid and cochlear implant compatible. Further, the FCC will consider captions for the deaf and audio descriptions for the blind, which have been required since the 1990s on television, should be extended for web programming, like Hulu.
Already, things are looking up. Recently, the ABC network, owned by Disney, independently announced it would caption all long-form programming on the web. And YouTube is now using Google speech recognition technology to auto caption all uploaded videos. The plan also covers making sure commercial websites are accessible.
2. Launch a White House Working Group. The FCC wants the Obama administration to convene a working group to maximize broadband adoption by people with disabilities. Such a group would bring together representatives from various federal departments and agencies and help ensure that each one is in compliance with Section 508, the law that states federal websites must be accessible. This group will also prepare a initial report on the state of broadband accessibility in the U.S. within one year, and then every two years thereafter.
3. Open an Forum for Assistive Technology Companies. The FCC wants to establish an Accessibility and Innovation Forum to allow manufacturers, service providers, assistive technology companies, third-party application developers, government representatives and others to share best practices and demonstrate new products, applications and assistive technologies. Chairman of the FCC Julius Genachowski would present an annual Accessibility and Innovation Award recognizing innovations by industry, small businesses, individuals and public-private partnerships that have made the greatest contribution to advancing broadband accessibility. The FCC and the Knight Foundation are also sponsoring an Apps for Inclusion contest, with the grand prize of $100,000.
4. Create the Connect America Fund. This fund would support the provision of affordable broadband and voice and shift up to $15.5 billion over the next decade from the existing Universal Service Fund program to support broadband. Along similar lines, the FCC will ask Congress for funds to provide assistive technologies that would enable individuals who are deaf or blind to access broadband services (up to $10 million per year), and to provide funding for competitive awards to be given to developers of innovative devices, components, software applications or other assistive technologies that promote access to broadband (up to $10 million per year).
Of course, the biggest danger is that these plans will be watered down through lobbying by broadcasters and other special interest groups. But the plan has a strong backing by the disability community and the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), a group of disability advocacy organizations that want to increase access to broadband, wireless, and other Internet-based technologies.
COAT was instrumental in getting Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to introduce the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009. Known as H.R. 3101, this bill would require accessibility for people with disabilities as it relates to digital and broadband technologies. Even the FCC recognizes the need for HR 3101, says About.com’s Deafness Blog.
In fact, much of the disability-themed language and action items in the National Broadband Plan, has been brought forth by COAT over the last year or so. COAT will be an active force going forward as the FCC seeks to bring much of its plan to fruition by 2011.