Jul 122010
 

The National Broadband Plan and You, Part 1

By Cheryl Heppner, 7/11/10

Karen Peltz Strauss is Deputy Chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, where she oversees the Commission’s disability policies. She moved quickly through a great deal of information during her one-hour presentation and still had time to provide information on other topics as well as answers to a few questions and comments.

About the National Broadband Plan

Karen’s focus was on what the National Broadband Plan means to consumers, particularly those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Here are some things Karen covered in her presentation:

– The plan is intended to serve as a road map to stimulate the economy through providing money for broadband.  For those unfamiliar with exactly what broadband means, Karen defined it as “a fancy term for high speed Internet access” through telephone lines, DSL, cable, fiber optics and other sources.

– The National Broadband Plan seeks affordable accessibility. It can be a means for us to access captions for mobile services and Internet-based video communication, or for captioned telephone service.

– Broadband is already creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and helping to bring access to rural areas, enabling distance learning, and access to government information and services.

Broadband and People with Disabilities

– Statistics show there are 36 million Americans with hearing loss; almost 53% of them are age 75 or older.  People with disabilities have lower wages and higher unemployment than nondisabled individuals, so they tend to have less access to broadband.  FCC data shows that 65% of people in the U.S. have broadband, but only 42% of people with disabilities have broadband.

– How we achieve accessibility has changed.  It used to be that hardware had to be made accessible, but now accessibility can be achieved through software.  Regardless of this change, Karen reinforced that it is always best to build accessibility in the design stage, at the very beginning of development.  As an example, television captioning first was available through buying a decoder box with and connecting it to a television set.  Now televisions all must have caption chips and no separate equipment is needed.

Making Broadband Affordable

– One section of the National Broadband Plan calls for expanding of the Lifeline and Link Up programs.  The problem with executing this expansion is that the programs are only tied to telephone lines. Karen asked how many individuals in the room still communicated through wired telephone lines, and then asked how many used the Internet instead. After seeing the show of hands it was clear that a large number of people in the room often depend on broadband for their communication. There is a fund in the National Broadband Plan, the “Connect America Fund” to roll out the physical infrastructure.

Broadband Plan Recommendations

– The plan’s access recommendations include creation of a Broadband Access Work Group in the Executive Branch.  Action on this recommendation is currently on hold.

– Another recommendation in the plan is the modernization of access laws and rules by the FCC, Department of Justice, and Congress. Passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act is one piece of this.

Access and Innovation Forum

– A third recommendation is to establish an Access and Innovation Forum at the FCC.  It isn’t just a forum but a combination of things the FCC will be doing to spur collaborative problem solving by industry, consumers, government representatives, third party application developers, researchers, assistive technology vendors and more.  The idea is to bring them together to learn consumer needs and then develop solutions to those needs. The forum is not a new concept.  It was successful in achieving the rules for hearing aid compatibility of wireless phones and in the Section 255 rules.  Already two workshops have been held to help move closer to the goals.

– Plans include workshops, facilitated dialogues, and accessibility challenges to be presented to engineers and innovators.  Other ideas are Chairman’s Access Awards to give non-monetary recognition for innovation and problem solving, web blogs to serve as problem solving commons, and a clearinghouse on accessible equipment and services.  An example of the latter’s use might be the ability to search for a hearing aid compatible phone with GSM technology

– Thanks to NVRC, Fairfax