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Democrat wants to require disability-friendly Internet phones, video

02 May, 2008 by Peter Verhoeven

At the moment, most TVs and telephones must be outfitted with special features for people with hearing, vision, and speech impairments under U.S. law. Now an influential Democratic congressman wants to expand those requirements to their Internet counterparts.

The bill being drafted by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would require, at least in some cases, dramatic changes in the way Internet phone- and video-related products are designed, while making it more difficult than under existing law for companies to claim exemptions from those requirements.

"The wizardry of the wires and the sophistication of the software programs do little for those who cannot affordably access or effectively use them," Markey said at a hearing here Thursday convened by the House of Representatives telecommunications and Internet panel he leads. "Our job as policymakers is to help ensure such affordable access and utilization, and this is what the draft legislation I have circulated is intended to do."

In some ways, the effort would simply build upon steps already taken by policymakers in recent years. Last summer, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission decided that voice-over Internet protocol providers whose services connect to the public-switched telephone network, such as Vonage, would be required to make their services compatible with hearing aids and telecommunications relay services, just as traditional phone operators do.

The Markey bill would extend those obligations to Skype-like equipment that allows users to swap voice, text, or video communications via Internet protocol technology. It would also go a step further, requiring them to support standard "real-time text" communication, an interactive data transmission method that replicates the feel of voice conversations more closely than instant messaging.

The bill also contains new rules for manufacturers of any gadget designed to receive or display video programming, be it Internet-based or otherwise. They would generally be required to equip those devices with the ability to decode and display closed captions, to deliver "video description" services (that is, oral narration designed for the blind and visually-impaired), and to present typical ticker-style emergency messages in a way that's accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

Furthermore, the devices would have to be designed so that on-screen menus are accessible in real-time to individuals with disabilities, and all remote controls would have to contain a "conspicuous" buttons for activating closed captioning.

Disabilities community weighs in A variety of disabilities advocates voiced support for the bill at Thursday's hearing. (Its working title is the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, although it has not yet been formally introduced.)

Source : CNET

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