Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee

HLAA was appointed to the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) again last year. We sit on the Disability Working Group, where we provide recommendations focusing on issues impacting people with hearing and vision loss. HLAA also provides input on issues such as broadband and truth in billing that other Working Groups of the CAC bring to the full Committee. For more information about the work of the CAC, visit

After our most recent meeting, March 18-19, Cheryl Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC) and chair of the CAC’s Disability Working Group, sent out a meeting summary on NVRC’s e News. Because Cheryl has done such a wonderful job reporting on that meeting, we asked if we could post her thoughts on our blog. Here, with her permission, is Cheryl Heppner’s report on the CAC meeting:

Working with the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee
By Cheryl Heppner, 3/21/10

During the last year there have been a lot of changes at the FCC. There’s a new Chairman, Julius Genachowski. Two veteran Commissioners, Michael Copps and Robert McDowell, have been joined by new appointees Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell Baker. Other people in positions of great responsibility, such as the chiefs of the bureaus, have also changed, and so have many of the staff. Thomas Chandler, who has been heading the Disability Rights Office at the FCC, will soon return to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Disability Working Group

The committee’s Disability Working Group, which I co-chair with Eric Bridges of the American Council for the Blind, met for almost two hours. Lise Hamlin of HLAA, Claude Stout of TDI were there, and Karen Peltz Strauss, soon to become a Deputy Bureau Chief [at the FCC], was there to listen in. Our discussion focused on what we believe should be the top priorities for the FCC to address during the coming weeks and months. We touched on a long list of topics such as setting standards for the quality of television captioning and video description, the process of setting reimbursement rates for telecommunications relay services, ensuring access to televised emergency information by those who are blind or visually impaired, and the need for the agency to update and implement new rules and regulations for today’s technology.

It’s almost overwhelming to look at the backlog of things NVRC has worked on with the FCC that still haven’t been addressed. Does anybody remember how much time and energy we spent working with other organizations to submit what we called the “caption quality petition” more than 5 years ago? Or our work to get the word out about the FCC’s granting exemptions from captioning, while working to get that decision reversed? No action has been taken to address the petition to improve caption quality, and over 700 waivers are still in effect.

[Note: HLAA has been working alongside NVRC and other consumer organizations on the issues Cheryl mentions; we, too, are eager to see FCC action on these and other issues important to the community.]

Our working group also talked about the need to work more closely with the companies that make the equipment we use to watch television so we can be sure the new technologies are still accessible to us. The first 3-D televisions are rolling onto shelves at stores like Best Buy, and we don’t yet know how they will work with captioning. One individual who has given presentations on 3-D television issues calls 3-D TVs “the most dangerous TV ever made,” and lest you think he was talking about rogue captions, there are many other concerns. Some people get queasy watching movies in 3-D because our eyes and brains just aren’t wired for it.

And hey, while we’re celebrating how more members of the Consumer Electronics Association have listened to our plea for a caption button on each TV remote, it would be nice to cut down on hunting time by having the button’s location jump out right away or be in the same general location on every remote. If you travel a lot, I’m sure you’d also love to be able to do it without and get your captions without feeling like you’re in training to become an electronics engineer. It seems like every hotel television either has a different menu to get the captions or you have to get a tech person to come to your room with a master remote to turn them on.

Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

This was our first Consumer Advisory Committee meeting with the new Bureau Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Joel Gurin. How could I not like this guy? He and I come from the same background, journalism and nonprofit management. In his case, the nonprofit was on a much greater scale; he helped revolutionize Consumer Reports to bring its power to the Web and many was involved in many other advances. At the FCC, one of the most recent innovations has been FCC Connect, which is still being tested.

FCC Connect

Go to and you’ll find 13 different ways you can keep in touch with the FCC’s actions and provide input. Click on one of them,, to see blog discussions about the Open Internet proceeding. Clearly the FCC is setting a new standard for transparency and consumer input.

Mr. Gurin has a Consumer Task Force which consists of the chiefs of all seven of the FCC’s bureaus. His goal is to make the FCC a consumer-responsive consumer protection agency. One of the things the FCC has done is to go through old video footage and use the video’s closed captions to translate the information to other languages. Those complaints about the cost and time to put in ramps for wheelchairs evaporated once the world began discovering that they make life better for delivery people and those pushing baby strollers. Now there’s recognition of what we’ve said all along -- our captions give a valuable tool for many, many people who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing.

Speedy or Sluggish? Have Some Fun with Broadband Tools

Look for the Stopwatch

Among the new things I learned at the March 18 FCC Consumer Advisory Committee meeting was that there’s a tool that’s fun to use, and it gives results you can compare with your neighbors. Not only that, it will help you find out if you are getting the Internet speed that your provider said you would get. Over 400,000 people have already taken the Broadband Test. Here’s how to help them get that number to over 500,000:

- Go to the FCC’s website for the National Broadband Plan at and you’ll see a photo of a hand holding a stopwatch under the heading “Consumer Resources” and subheading “Consumer Broadband Test”.

- Click on “Test my Broadband Now”. It will immediately start reviewing your broadband speed connection and give you a report.

- If your computer does not have Java software, which is required to run the test, you can get a free Java download immediately by clicking “Get Java”.

Getting Results

The broadband test website says that measuring these speeds is not an exact science. When you click to run the broadband test, it will be done with either Ookla software or Network Diagnostic Tool software. At my home, my husband and I chose to run tests with both since it’s so easy. As soon as the first test finishes, there’s a place you can click to run it again with the other software. Our results from the two brands of software were not much different at home, but when I ran tests at NVRC they showed a little more difference in speed.

For one of the FCC staff living in D.C., however, the speed test brought a surprise. He found that his broadband speed was just half of what he was supposed be receiving. He called the cable company providing the broadband and they replaced his modem with one that made things much more speedy.


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