At its May 21, 2015, Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted new rules requiring visually displayed emergency information to be available aurally on “second screens” – such as tablets, laptops, or smartphones – via a secondary audio stream when linear programming from a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) is viewed via that MVPD’s network. The new rules, which the FCC enacted through a Second Report and Order (R&O), will also require manufacturers of covered apparatus, such as set-top boxes (STBs), to provide a simple and easy-to-use mechanism by which users may access the secondary audio stream.

Additionally, in a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM), the FCC seeks comment on several issues related to the new rules. The FCC asks, for example, how emergency information made accessible should be prioritized, and whether MVPDs should be required to ensure that their apps include a simple mechanism to activate access to the secondary audio stream. It also asks whether regular school closing information should continue to be included in the list of required emergency information.

The new rules, which continue the FCC’s implementation of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA,) supplement FCC emergency information rules adopted two years ago, which require companies offering visually displayed emergency information to provide an audio version on a secondary audio programming (SAP) channel. (Compliance with the May 2013 emergency information rules is required beginning May 26, 2015.) At the Open Meeting, both Media Bureau staff and several Commissioners emphasized that increasing use of devices beyond televisions to view programming necessitates additional rules to ensure that blind or visually impaired consumers accessing content on “second-screen” devices (such as smartphones or tablets) have access to time-sensitive emergency information.

By including second-screen devices, the new rules expand existing requirements that emergency information presented visually (such as printed crawls, maps or other graphic displays) during non-newscast programming be provided aurally on a secondary audio stream. MVPDs will be required to pass through such emergency information on the SAP when they allow customers to access their linear programming on second-screen devices on the MVPD’s own network. The obligation does not, however, extend to users accessing MVPD programming outside their homes over the Internet.

In addition, the R&O implements rules that will require manufacturers of STBs and other covered equipment to provide a simple mechanism, such as a button, key or icon, to enable consumers to switch from the primary audio stream to the secondary stream that carries the aural descriptions of emergency information.

According to speakers at the Open Meeting, compliance with the new rules will be required in two years. Because the Second R&O and Second FNPRM had not yet been released as of this posting, we will update this advisory once the full text is available.