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Blog Posts by Tom Wheeler

The 'Wonders' of Video Description Technology

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
February 13, 2015 - 01:47 PM

A few months ago, Stevie Wonder visited the FCC to talk about how we can harness the power of technology to make performance art more accessible.  At that time, I discovered that Mr. Wonder would be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.  When he urged the FCC to raise awareness about and availability of audio description of video programming, I thought the Grammy special would be a wonderful showcase.

On February 16, 2015, thanks to the leadership of CBS CEO Les Moonves, CBS will use video description on its broadcast of "Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life - an All-Star GRAMMY Salute." It is the first time video description has ever been used for a musical performance program. 

If you're unfamiliar with video description technology, it's a feature that allows consumers who are blind or visually impaired to listen to an audio track describing a video program's visual elements when there is no audio accompanying those elements.  The audio describes non-verbal actions taking place on the screen, such as a body language, scene changes, setting, visual jokes, costumes or other content.  People who can see take for granted these silent but essential aspects of programming, but, without video description, people who are blind miss them.

Many popular television programs today offer video description services, including Fox's "Bones," NBC's "Grimm," PBS's "Downton Abbey," Nickelodeon's "Go Diego Go, " USA's "Royal Pains," and many more. You can experience what video description offers to the public by watching this video clip.

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Back to Basics: Promoting Public Safety and Protecting Consumers

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
January 8, 2015 - 04:16 PM

This week, I’ve been at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas getting a sneak peak at the very latest gadgets and innovations. Enabling new technologies that delight consumers and grow our economy is one of the FCC’s top priorities. While the hottest tech trends may garner the headlines, an equally important part of the FCC’s mission is basic consumer protections. The Commission’s first open meeting of 2015 will be focused on two core responsibilities: promoting public safety and serving as an effective, accessible advocate for consumers.

Since I arrived at the Commission, one of our top public safety priorities has been improving the effectiveness of 911.  A particular area of attention has been to improve location accuracy for indoor wireless 911 calls.

When the FCC adopted its original wireless 911 rules, most wireless usage occurred outdoors. But times have changed, and so has technology. The vast majority of 911 calls now come from wireless phones, increasingly from indoors.

That is why the Commission put forth proposed new location accuracy rules last year.

The record in the proceeding tells us that there have been significant advances in technology, including technologies that have the potential to locate indoor callers by address, floor, and apartment or room number. 

The Commission has studied this problem in depth, and with public safety stakeholders, has developed a mature understanding of the range of credible options.

The four largest wireless carriers and two national public safety organizations recently submitted their own proposed “roadmap,” a novel approach that has the potential to close the readiness gap through use of known locations of indoor wireless nodes.  This approach will ultimately result in capabilities that will evolve with the continued change anticipated in the number of ways consumers might call for help in the future.

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Making Good on the Promise of Independent Minority Ownership of Television Stations

December 4, 2014 - 01:52 PM

Increasing minority ownership of television broadcast stations has been an often-stated, but elusive goal.  While there is widespread agreement on the need for progress, there has been very little by way of new ideas to solve the twin problems of access and opportunity.  For several years, the only path available to minority entrepreneurs required troubling financial dependency and constrained programming choices.  With the Media Bureau’s approval of several transactions today, however, we see the emergence of new ownership models that will not only bring more independent voices to the station ownership ranks in a manner that promotes diversity, competition, and localism. 

Each recent success detailed below is grounded in steps the Commission took this year to rein in abuse of the “sidecar” business model.  This allowed television station owners to structure broadcast transactions in ways that openly circumvented our local TV ownership rule, which generally forbids ownership of more than one station in a local market.  The effect was to deny opportunities for minority ownership and management. 

In aligning our treatment of Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) for TV stations -- which permitted the larger, financially dominant station in a market to sell advertising for a weaker station -- with that of radio stations, we sought to reduce any influence on programming at the smaller station that might naturally attach to such arrangements. Moreover, allowing major broadcasters to tie up stations as sidecars made it harder for truly independent would-be broadcasters to compete to buy available stations. 

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Closing the Digital Divide in Rural America

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
November 20, 2014 - 03:39 PM

High-speed Internet access has become fundamental to modern life, whether we’re on the job, at home, or going to school. Broadband connectivity can overcome geographic isolation and put a world of information and economic opportunity at the fingertips of citizens in even the most remote communities. But the hard truth is there is a digital divide that particularly impacts rural America.

Americans living in urban areas are three times more likely to have access to Next Generation broadband than Americans in rural areas. An estimated 15 million Americans, primarily in rural communities, don’t even have access to entry-level broadband in their homes. Forty-one percent of American’s rural schools couldn’t get a high-speed connection if they tried.

The FCC can play an important role in bridging these gaps, and today, I’m circulating two items that will expand access to robust broadband across rural America.

Bringing High-Speed Broadband to Rural Schools and Libraries

One proposal would close the digital divide in rural schools and libraries by modernizing the FCC’s E-rate program. Since 1997, the program has helped connect schools and libraries to the Internet, but it’s falling short of delivering the bandwidth required for 21st Century learning. That’s particularly true in rural America, where 41% of schools lack access to the fast fiber connections required compared to 31% in urban areas.

Why does this Rural Fiber Gap exist? Fiber connection costs are much higher for rural schools and libraries. As a result, either there is no fiber, or that level of connectivity is only available at an unreasonably high price. It may not be unusual, but it is unacceptable that these realities are allowed to hurt students.

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Technology Transitions: Consumers Matter Most

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
October 31, 2014 - 03:19 PM

This past January, the Commission unanimously adopted an order to speed technology transitions for the benefit of consumers.  How?  By assuring that technology transitions bring innovation while protecting the enduring values that consumers have come to expect from their networks, including public safety, consumer protection and competition.

The time has come to put those principles into practice. Today, I am circulating to my fellow Commissioners two items that take up the task of encouraging technology transitions while protecting those core values.

Tremendous benefits can be realized by the transition of public safety to IP-based networks. For example, IP-based networks will enable 911 call centers to receive a greater range of information – such as text, video, and data from vehicle crash sensors – to better support emergency response.

But the introduction of new technologies has also introduced new vulnerabilities that cannot be ignored. We have seen a spike in so-called “sunny day” outages, when failure comes from the failure of software or databases and not from natural disasters. As the Public Safety Bureau reported to the Commission earlier this month, a “sunny day” outage this past April left consumers in 7 states without 911 service for up to 6 hours.  Some 6,600 911 calls were not completed during that time.  This is simply unacceptable.

A single 911 call today can involve multiple companies operating in multiple locations across the country, and that means a failure in one place can leave people without 911 service across multiple states, indeed across the nation. 

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Tech Transitions, Video, and the Future

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
October 28, 2014 - 02:48 PM

Consumers have long complained about how their cable service forces them to buy channels they never watch.  The move of video onto the Internet can do something about that frustration – but first Internet video services need access to the programs.  Today the FCC takes the first step to open access to cable programs as well as local television.  The result should be to give consumers more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want. 

In 1992 Congress realized that the then-nascent satellite industry would have a hard time competing because much cable programming was owned by cable companies who frequently kept it from competitors.  Congress mandated access to cable channels for satellite services, and competition flourished.  Today I am proposing to extend the same concept to the providers of linear, Internet-based services; to encourage new video alternatives by opening up access to content previously locked on cable channels.  What could these over-the-top video providers (OTTs) supply to consumers?  Many different kinds of multichannel video packages designed for different tastes and preferences.  A better ability for a consumer to order the channels he or she wants to watch.

So-called linear channels, which offer the viewer a prescheduled lineup of programs, have been the largely exclusive purview of over-the-air broadcasting, cable, and satellite TV.  But these kinds of packages of programming are coming to the Web as well.  DISH has said that it intends to launch an online service that may include smaller programming bundles. And it has already begun offering foreign language channels online.  Sony, DIRECTV, and Verizon are also in the hunt.  Recently, CBS announced a streaming service that includes linear channels, separate from cable subscriptions; and the new HBO service may as well.

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Reflections on this week's ITU discussions

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
October 24, 2014 - 11:24 AM

Every four years, the International Telecommunication Union holds a Plenipotentiary Conference to address the strategic direction of the ITU on telecommunications issues. I have just spent several days in Busan, Korea at this year's conference, working side by side with other USG officials, including head of delegation Ambassador Danny Sepulveda from the State Department, Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling from NTIA, Assistant Secretary Andy Ozment from DHS, and my colleague from the FCC, Commissioner Mike O'Rielly.

Together, we held a series of bilateral meetings with delegations from other countries on the important work of the conference, seeking to ensure the international community helps to provide development and capacity-building assistance to countries on important issues like infrastructure deployment and cybersecurity. Regulatory issues were hot topics in many of these meetings, as well as in a number of FCC bilateral meetings with our counterparts from independent regulators and telecom ministries.

I came away from these meetings with a few key points.  First, virtually every regulator emphasized how important it is to get broadband to rural and remote areas of their countries - to promote economic development, education and effective healthcare.  Not just connectivity, but broadband. They understand that broadband access can unlock the potential for individuals to prosper in their local communities instead of migrating to urban centers in search of a better quality of life.

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Safety and Broadband Must Go Hand in Hand

October 15, 2014 - 12:11 PM

The wireless industry is a powerful driver of growth in our economy. New facilities pop up all the time, giving the devices in our pockets and purses better service and faster broadband connections. Our country relies on these connections, but serving America's exploding demand for them shouldn't come at the cost of a worker's life.

Too often though, that's exactly what is happening. In 2013, 13 workers lost their lives in this industry. This year: 11 so far. The tower industry might be small, currently employing 10,000 to 15,000 workers, but it's quickly proving to be one of the most dangerous. And if we don't do something now, the number of fatalities will grow as fast as the industry does.

This is why our agencies joined together yesterday with telecommunications and tower industry leaders to address this heartbreaking problem. We know that we can only solve it if we work together; that we each have a role to play in stopping these senseless tragedies. It's also why we're proud to announce that our partnership on this issue doesn't end today, but will continue in the form of a joint working group the FCC and DOL have decided to form, with industry participation, to develop recommended practices for employers.

We know that no one intends for a tower construction project to take a life. Contracts for tower work are often written to ensure safety from top to bottom, but that message often gets diluted in a decentralized industry that uses so much subcontracting. We have to make sure the protections are making it from the folks on the ground to the person 1,000 feet in the air holding the wrench or wearing the harness.

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Meeting the Mobile Moment

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
September 26, 2014 - 10:59 AM

Last weekend’s record-setting launch of the new iPhone is just the latest reminder that our appetite for new mobile technologies appears to be insatiable. And this continuous cycle of mobile innovation is not only delighting U.S. consumers, it’s a major force in driving economic growth, boosting U.S. competitiveness, and enabling solutions to challenges like education and health care.

Seizing the opportunities of mobile innovation is one of the FCC’s highest priorities. Our mobile agenda rests on three pillars: making more spectrum available for broadband; using the market and technology to ensure more efficient and effective use of our spectrum; and promoting the deployment of mobile infrastructure. Today, I’m circulating to my colleagues a series of proposals that would advance each of these goals.

High-speed mobile broadband requires high-speed broadband buildout. However, the regulatory burdens associated with deployments can be expensive and time-consuming. We have to fix that.

For that reason, I circulated an item today that takes concrete steps to immediately and substantially ease the burdens associated with deploying wireless equipment.

The draft order recognizes that a technological revolution with regard to infrastructure deployment has changed the landscape. New Distributed Antenna System (DAS) networks and other small-cell systems use components that are a fraction of the size of traditional macrocells and can be installed – unobtrusively – on utility poles, buildings, and other existing structures.

The draft order accounts for that change by crafting a far more efficient process for small deployments that do not trigger concerns about environmental protection or historic preservation.

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Talking Tech in the Cradle of Liberty

by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman
September 22, 2014 - 05:27 PM

Two-hundred twenty-seven years ago this week, the U.S. Constitution was ratified in Philadelphia, establishing our system of government and enshrining a vision of a more perfect Union that still guides us today. Part of that vision was the belief that promoting communications promotes a healthy democracy. The Constitution established the Postal Office, in part to help subsidize the press and to facilitate the distribution of news and information to the American people.

Today, I spent the day in Philadelphia and saw just the latest evidence that, while the technology has changed, our Founding Fathers’ insight into the importance of communications to our democracy’s health remains evergreen.

I met with local leaders who explained how people in their communities needed access to modern communications not only to stay informed, but also to find jobs, to further their education, and to and engage with their elected leaders.

I visited Philadelphia’s Free Library, which serves a community on-ramp to the world of information, especially for children and for people on fixed incomes. And, increasingly, this information is not found in books but on the Internet. Philadelphia residents who don’t have computers are visiting the Free Library to get online. And area students visit the library after school to use the computers to help complete their homework assignments.

The FCC’s E-Rate program has helped ensure that libraries and schools across America have Internet connectivity. This past July, the Commission approved the first major modernization of the E-Rate program since it was established 18 years ago. These reforms will substantially increase funding available to support Wi-Fi connectivity in libraries and schools, will make the program more user-friendly for libraries, and will increase efficiencies to make E-Rate dollars go farther.

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