Commissioner Copps’ Remarks

June 13, 2011 in Education & Outreach
Commissioner Copps’ Remarks on Receiving the Karen Peltz-Strauss Public Policy Award

From the Federal Communications Commission

JUNE 2, 2011

This is truly a special day for me. It brings back so many memories of our work together over the past decade. It’s hard for me to believe that it was ten years ago that we were together in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the 14th Biennial TDI Conference. I was a newly-minted Member of the FCC, and addressing that gathering was my first speech as a Commissioner. Since then, I have been privileged to work with so many of you in this room in trying to get your needs and your input before the FCC and to develop policies that could make a difference in your lives and all of our lives.

Claude Stout and I became immediate good friends the moment we met and it was at a small dinner that he arranged in Sioux Falls the night before my speech that I first started to really understand both the depth of the challenges confronted by so many people in our deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, but also to realize the opportunity we had to apply the wonders of new technologies to help overcome those challenges. Working with folks like Claude and Roy Miller and Joe Duarte and Fred Weiner and Carol Sliney and so many more in this audience and throughout the community has been for me the most inspiring and rewarding part of my time at the Commission.

And what an honor it is to be receiving the Karen Peltz-Strauss Public Policy Award–from none other than Karen Peltz-Strauss herself! Karen is one of my heroes. I relied heavily on her in my early days as a Commissioner before she went out to work directly in the community, and I urged Chairman Genachowski to try to entice her back when he became Chairman–and he did. She and Joel Gurin and Greg Hlibok and their team are so great to work with. Here’s how I work with Karen. Inevitably–each and every time–when an idea or proposal regarding your issues comes up, the first question I ask is: “What does Karen think of this?” If it’s a “go” for Karen, it’s just about always a “go” for me. She’ll know the history, the substance, the practical impact, the cost and the right thing to do.

Karen has worked for 25 years to make sure that the disabilities communities are not left behind as technology advances–ensuring that accessibility needs are met when it comes to communicating over the telephone, watching television and, today’s challenge, accessing and using broadband. Our agency is such a better place than it would otherwise be thanks to her expertise and her commitment to you. So I thank her for that, for all the great advice and counsel she has shared with me, and for presenting me with this wonderful Award this morning. It is something I will always cherish.

I’ve been thinking in recent days about what a long way we’ve come in these ten years! Back then we were just at the dawn of the Twenty-first Century –talking about the potential of advanced communications services and technologies to change our lives for the better but still only on the cusp of actually experiencing their transformative power. Today most of us have seen that power first-hand, many of us have grown to depend upon these amazing services and technologies, and we understand that access to broadband–both fixed and mobile–is vitally important to our lives. It’s important to our lives as individuals because the door to opportunity is increasingly online. It’s where jobs are found and secured, it’s where companies recruit. It’s important to our health as telehealth and telemedicine become important components of how we care for ourselves.

It’s important to how we educate ourselves and our kids for the competitive world in which we all live. Broadband is already playing a huge role in education but we haven’t seen anything yet–the growth will be both phenomenal and transformative. Broadband is also central to the future of our country. There is almost no challenge we face that does not have a broadband component as an integral part of its successful resolution. Job creation comes immediately to mind–both helping people find the jobs that are out there, but also creating new jobs through the deployment, adoption and utilization of this expansive information infrastructure. Few people would deny that our country faces competitive commercial challenges from other countries more severe than anything we have encountered since we were a colony a quarter of a millennium ago.

Things don’t look as assured for our future as once they did. Our economic future comes with no guarantees–only challenges to the preeminence we enjoyed for so long. But broadband can help. It can help us decrease, for example, our costly dependence on foreign fuels. It can also help us put the brakes on the degradation of our environment. And it can do so much more. So we need to grab onto these new tools of the Twenty-first Century and put them to work for ourselves and for our kids who are growing up in a very different world from the one into which you and I were born. The bottom line is this: participation in our economy, our society, and even our democracy increasingly requires high speed Internet access.

For broadband to work it has to be available to all and be utilized by all. Its premise is accessibility to everyone–no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives. Access to high-speed, high-value broadband is a defining right of this new age. Let’s treat it as a civil right because that’s how it should be seen. If we don’t do that, the differences that already divide America will actually grow and the New Digital Age will instead become the Growing Digital Divide Age. What a tragedy that would be–to have within our grasp the most dynamic, liberating and opportunity-creating information technology in all of history–and let it be used to erect new barriers to inclusion rather than to break down the old. That’s why we all need access to affordable broadband and an open Internet.

Earlier this year, we marked the 15th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act. Vice President Al Gore’s words at the signing of that bill back in 1996 really captured the true goal of that landmark legislation. He said then, and it still resonates today, “I firmly believe that the proper role of government in the development of the information superhighway is to promote and achieve at every stage of growth, at every level of operation, at every scale, the public interest values of democracy, education, and economic and social well-being for all of our citizens. If we do not see to it that every project, every network, every system addresses the public interest at the beginning, then when will it be addressed?”

The people I see in this audience today have been leading the way to make that vision a reality, by ensuring that the 54 million Americans with disabilities can share in the benefits of the Digital Age. New technologies and new media certainly hold great promise  -but optimism alone doesn’t get the job done. Hard work gets it done. You are doing that work. Our job at the FCC is to help ensure that every American with a disability has access to functionally equivalent communications services–a mandate that, if it’s going to work, must evolve as rapidly as the technological innovation we see going on all around us.That is why I was so thrilled to be in the White House watching President Obama sign the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act into law last October. Thanks to your tireless advocacy and to true champions on Capitol Hill including my friends Congressman Ed Markey, Congressman Henry Waxman, Senator Jay Rockefeller and Senator Mark Pryor, this sweeping piece of communications and civil rights legislation is now the law of the land, and it’s going to make a world of difference. The statute tasks the FCC with quick and far-reaching action to expand opportunity for persons with disabilities. And I am happy to report that the FCC is hard at work following up to implement the mandates of this historic legislation.

 Allow me to share with you some of the areas where we’ve already started moving forward:

 Two months ago, we announced the creation of a two-year pilot program to get the Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program up-and-running. The Twenty-first Century Act allocated $10 million annually from the TRS fund for this nationwide effort. The goal here is to make communications technologies and services accessible to low-income individuals who are deaf-blind.

The FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to implement the express mandate of Congress to reinstate and modify the video description rules that were originally adopted by the Commission in 2000. Video description, which provides important–sometimes essential–information that is otherwise conveyed to the viewing audience only visually, makes video programming more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. Some broadcasters have provided this service of their own accord since the Commission’s rules were overturned in court more than a decade ago, and I salute those that have done so for their leadership. The requirements of the new law will greatly expand the amount of programming that is video-described. The Commission must take action to reinstate video description rules before the end of the year to meet Congress’ deadline. You know, sometimes there is just no substitute for a good deadline!

The Commission is also working to craft rules that ensure that persons with disabilities are able fully to use advanced communications services, equipment and networks. This hard-won requirement of accessibility was first enshrined in Section 255 of the 1996 Act, and even before passage of the Twenty-First Century Act the current Commission was already digging into some of these issues, in particular focusing on the need to expand disability access to wireless telecommunications. But now the Commission has the express statutory mandate to expand that requirement beyond traditional telecommunications services like voice telephony and into the world of advanced offerings like the mobile devices that so many of us use to go online, watch video, send text messages–and, sometimes, even to make a plain old telephone call, too!

Two advisory committees have been set up by the new law–the Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee and the Emergency Access Advisory Committee–and they have been meeting regularly and working toward issuing recommendations for FCC action: The Emergency Access Advisory Committee, for its part, has already completed a national survey of persons with disabilities regarding emergency calling. We look forward to its recommendations about what policies and practices we can put in place to achieve equal access to emergency services for individuals with disabilities as we migrate to Next Generation 911 that will be capable of receiving emergency calls via voice, text, and video.

And the Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee is developing recommendations on a host of critical issues central to the new law: closed captioning of Internet programming previously captioned on television; video description of television programming; accessible emergency information for people with vision disabilities; compatibility of accessibility features and new video programming devices; and accessible user interfaces on video programming devices. 

I know many of you here today were instrumental in getting this legislation passed in the first place. You did a great job! And now that the action has shifted over to the FCC, you have brought your talents to the advisory Committees and have already given us valuable comment on our proposed rules. I can tell you this for sure: the successful implementation of the law requires that we continue this close and ongoing collaboration with you. So I encourage you to continue to participate actively as these proceedings move forward at the FCC. It’s important for this particular law. And it’s important for all the things we can do together in the years ahead. As my old boss Senator Fritz Hollings often cautioned: decisions made without you are usually decisions against you.

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