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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Announces Plans to Step Down


FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Communications and Technology on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on December 12, 2013.

TDI Salutes the Chairman for His Transformational Leadership

On Thursday, December 15, 2016 – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, after more than three years at the helm of the agency, announced he intends to leave the Federal Communications Commission on January 20, 2017.

Chairman Wheeler issued the following statement:  

“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented Commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure. Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. It has been a privilege to work with my fellow Commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans.”

On the occasion of Wheeler’s departure announcement, TDI took the news with some sadness, but with an abundance of fond memories and deep gratitude.  Wheeler is the 31st Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.  The Commission was established by U.S. Congress via the Communications Act of 1934.  

Claude Stout, TDI Executive Director issued the statement, as follows:  

“History will record that Tom Wheeler was one of its most progressive Chairmen, maybe the best ever, in the FCC’s eighty two years as an independent federal agency.  In just three years, he and his four fellow Commissioners have aggressively amassed the highest number of formal regulatory initiatives and other activities for disability access in telecommunications, media, and information services. He understood without further prodding that to meet the Commission’s ongoing mandate to serve the public interest, addressing the needs and issues of people with disabilities has to always be part of this equation.  We are so indebted for his transformational type of leadership that has generated an amazing number of results, which is outlined in this eNote.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and Godspeed!”  

Wheeler has been a friend of the deaf and hard of hearing community.  He was a person ahead of his times.  About thirty years ago, when many other employers would shy from doing so, he hired a deaf person, Steven Collins (now working at Gallaudet as Dr. Steven Collins) to work for the company, NuCable.  

When he assumed the reins of the Chairmanship in November 2013, one of his first actions was to meet with us key leaders of the disability community.  In that meeting, he told us he intend to accomplish as much to meet our access needs in telecommunications, media, and information services.  

Fast forward, just in three years’ time.  True enough, he has proven he doesn’t talk the talk, indeed he has walked the talk.

Our joint consumer groups petition for TV caption quality had been on the back burner for ten years.  In February, 2014, in just three months after Mr. Wheeler came on board at the FCC, we finally got formal action with its Report and Order.  The industry is now observing best practices to improve producing quality captions on television.  Across the nation, we are more and more totally “in the loop” with the rest of our families and friends when we watch local news, weather, and sports shows with real time captions or enhanced ENT captions.

In July, 2014, the Commission reversed a previous decision, now requiring that video clips be captioned for television, which took effect in 2016.

In August, 2014, the Commission adopted rules requiring all wireless carriers by the end of the year 2014 to enable Americans, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing, to text 911 in an emergency. There are over 6,800 911 centers in America, and the list of participating ones is steadily growing, now little over 600.

In December, 2014, the FCC announced formation of a Disability Advisory Committee.  The Committee has met for two years and accomplished its work with seventeen actionable recommendations.  The Committee has given a voice to many more from the disability community to participate in the FCC’s official decision-making process.

In August, 2015 – the FCC announced that it offers an open source video access platform that will enable Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or who have a speech disability to communicate directly with federal agencies and businesses in American Sign Language (ASL).

In November, 2015 – the FCC held a forum to promote discussion about closed captioning of public access and governmental programming shown on television.  The event initiated discussions about the benefits of captioning such programming, the relevant captioning obligations of programmers and stations, and effective and efficient captioning solutions.  In the same month, the Commission took additional steps to continue the Commission’s implementation of Sections 204 and 205 of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (“CVAA”), which mandate the accessibility of user interfaces on digital apparatus and navigation devices used to view video programming.

In February, 2016 – The Commission today adopted amendments to its rules on closed captioning of televised video programming to ensure that millions of Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing have full access to programming.  This action helps clarify which entities are responsible for which parts of the delivery and quality of closed captions on television.   

In August, 2016 – The Commission adopted an order to make permanent its program that provides communications equipment to low-income individuals who are deaf-blind. The Commission launched the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP), also known as “iCanConnect,” as a pilot program in 2012. Since then, the program has provided up to $10 million annually to support programs that distribute communications equipment, helping Americans with hearing and vision loss to connect with family and friends and become more independent.  In the same month, the FCC took several steps to implement new rules to ensure that people with hearing loss have full access to innovative wireless devices.  It amended the hearing aid compatibility requirements that are generally applicable to wireless service providers and manufacturers of digital wireless handsets.  Specifically, the Commission increases the number of hearing aid compatible handsets that service providers and manufacturers are required to offer as per the two new benchmarks:  1.)  66 percent of offered handset models must be compliant following a two-year transition period for manufacturers, with additional compliance time for service providers, and 2.)  85 percent of offered handset models must be compliant following a five-year transition period for manufacturers, with additional compliance time for service providers.  Last, but not least it reconfirms its commitment to pursuing 100 percent compatibility within eight years.

In November, 2016 the FCC hosted a showcase event which demonstrated that direct video calling enables consumers with hearing disabilities who use American Sign Language (ASL) to make video calls directly over broadband transmissions to business and government call centers.  The event illustrated how the availability of the direct video calling option can help businesses and government agencies be more accessible to individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, speech-disabled or deaf-blind, by providing ways for these populations to directly contact entities in sign language using video transmissions.  

In December, 2016 – the FCC amended its rules to allow phone companies to replace support for an outdated form of text telephone communications, known as TTY, with support for real-time text, commonly referred to as “RTT,” to provide reliable telephone communications for Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or who have a speech disability.  Under FCC rules, phone companies and manufacturers are required to support accessible text communications services, which for years have taken the form of TTY services.  Under the new rules, carriers and manufacturers will be allowed to use the more advanced and interoperable real-time text technology to meet this obligation.

Within the next few months, the Trump White House will submit a nomination to the U.S. Senate, presumably with a Republican candidate to serve as the new FCC Chairman.  Another Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel will leave the Commission when her term expires on December 31, 2016. Like Wheeler, Rosenworcel has proven to be a strong friend of the national disability community in her four and a half year stint with the Commission.  Thank you, Commissioner Rosenworcel!  Other three members remain on the Commission such as Mignon Clyburn, Ajit Pai, and Michael O’Rielly.

FCC Leadership

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and five commissioners including Mignon Clyburn