FCC Seeks Comments on “Interoperability” of Video Conferencing Service under the CVAA; Expansion of TRS Rules on the Horizon?

On April 27, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) released a Public Notice inviting public comments to refresh the record on the scope of FCC regulations, implementing the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (“CVAA”), that require interoperable video conferencing services to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. Although the primary focus of the proceeding is to answer what makes a video conferencing service such as Zoom or WebEx “interoperable,” the FCC invites comments on a wider range of interoperability issues, including relevant information on what types of services are currently available in the video conferencing marketplace, the types of interoperability they currently offer, and, significantly, the interoperability of video conferencing services with telecommunications relay services (“TRS”) for people with hearing and speech disabilities, as well as “any other developments that the Commission should consider in resolving” open video conferencing-related interoperability questions.

The compatibility of TRS solutions with video conferencing platforms is a particularly hot-button issue. In response to consumer complaints that some video conferencing services are not fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals, the FCC Disability Advisory Committee (“DAC”) released a report recommending that the FCC take specific actions to facilitate interconnection of video conferencing platforms with TRS. Thus, if the Commission makes any noteworthy changes to its rules in response to public comments filed in this proceeding, we expect that the updates will focus on improving TRS access to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other video conferencing services for users who cannot or have difficulty accessing these services using their preferred form(s) of TRS.

Comments in the pending video conferencing interoperability proceeding are due 30 days after the Public Notice is published in the Federal Register — likely, in mid-June. The deadline to file reply comments will be 30 days later.

Covered Products and Services

The CVAA and the FCC’s implementing regulations require providers of advanced communications services (“ACS”) and manufacturers of equipment used for ACS (including end user equipment, network equipment, and software) to make such services and equipment accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, unless doing so would not be achievable. “Accessible” means individuals with varying abilities must be able to locate, identify, and operate the input, control, and mechanical functions of a product or service, and be able to access the output or display of all information necessary to operate and use the product or service. “Usable” means individuals with disabilities have access to the full functionality and documentation for the product, including instructions, product information (including accessible feature information), documentation, and technical support functionally equivalent to that provided to individuals without disabilities.

ACS are divided into four categories: (1) interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) service, (2) non-interconnected VoIP service, (3) electronic messaging service, and (4) interoperable video conferencing service. The federal Communications Act defines an interoperable conferencing service as “service that provides real-time video communications, including audio, to enable users to share information of the user’s choosing.”

TRS allow persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or have speech disabilities to communicate by telephone or video conferencing platforms in ways that are functionally equivalent to voice communications services used by persons without such disabilities. TRS users communicate through live relay operators and/or automatic speech recognition (“ASR”) using sign language or by typing what they want to say and reading the words of the other parties.

Interoperability of Video Conferencing Services with TRS

In its February 2022 report, the DAC highlighted various video conferencing access barriers encountered by deaf and hard of hearing users. The DAC specifically observed that while some video conferencing platforms incorporate live closed captioning using ASR, these features are not available on all platforms. Moreover, some video conferences are not configured by the organizers to allow access to these solutions. And where ASR-based closed captions are available, their quality is often unacceptable. For example, some platforms do not permit users to customize caption size, color, opacity, and other critical settings to ensure readability. Finally, some platforms lack sufficient user control to ensure that interpreters and signers are properly displayed and can be properly pinned on users’ display. Based on these findings, the DAC recommended that the Commission ensure, at a minimum, that video conferencing platforms include built-in closed captioning functionality that is available to all users” and allow users to control the activation and customize the appearance of captions and video.

In addition to these issues, we expect the FCC to be equally appreciative of any suggestions for ensuring that TRS users who wish to dial into a video conference can do so through their preferred form of TRS, as they would be directly responsive to the broad topic of interoperability, as well as the narrower issue of interconnection between video conferencing services and TRS.

Comments in this proceeding may be filed on-line using the Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System. Our experienced attorneys are happy to help your company at every stage of the filing process, including with preparation, review, and submission of your comments. If you have any questions about how you can shape the evolving regulatory landscape of disability access to interoperable video conferencing services, or would like help with commenting in the proceeding, please contact Michal J. Nowicki, Esq., at (703) 714-1311 or mjn@commlawgroup.com.

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