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IFE for the impaired: Part one

 

US airlines, and any that fly into and out of the USA, are awaiting a rulemaking due in 2015 from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) that is expected to set requirements for closed captioning of IFE. A mandate to replace the approximately 50% of existing IFE systems that are not closed-caption capable could cost as much as US$1m to US$5m per aircraft, depending on the specific equipment and aircraft size, and a broad mandate to convert all the audio to closed captions could generate costs in the millions of dollars for the creation and delivery of the captions themselves.

To represent the IFE industry’s point of view, the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), through its Technology Committee and Washington DC counsel, has engaged the DOT in an effort to reach closed-caption objectives without onerous costs.

A few airlines – including Air Canada, Delta and Emirates – have moved voluntarily to make some IFE content more accessible to passengers who are deaf, hard of hearing (HoH), blind, or who have limited vision. But despite the capability of the IFE systems they use, most airlines are awaiting the DOT ruling, technical specifications from the APEX Technology Committee and Closed Caption Working Group (CCWG), and perhaps a clearer determination of the business terms that will apply to the cost of delivering closed captions to the aircraft before they implement closed captioning.

APEX – then known as the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) – began to consider closed captions in IFE for the deaf and HoH in the early 2000s. It established a working relationship with the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), part of the Media Access Group at Boston’s public television station, WGBH, to explore closed-caption implementation on board aircraft.

In 2006 the DOT issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would have required all inflight video to be closed captioned. APEX (WAEA) responded to the NPRM by saying that closed caption technology was not compatible with the IFE platforms in use at that time, but that the emerging MPEG-4 technology would be friendlier to closed caption objectives.

Citing the APEX response, the DOT announced in 2009 that it was not able to establish requirements at that time because of the limitations of the technology underpinning IFE, but said it would follow the emergence of the MPEG-4 technologies described by APEX and consider subsequent action.

Later that same year, APEX – through its Technology Committee – made the first major step toward making closed captions a reality in IFE by codifying a solution compatible with MPEG-1/2 IFE platforms that could provide closed captions using bitmap graphic overlays on the video. The bitmap solution is still used today, and can also be used on MPEG-4 IFEC platforms.

From zero to 50% 
Since 2006 – when solutions to enable the provision of closed captions first seemed to be within reach for future IFE platforms – until today, IFE systems with closed-caption capabilities where the video display is controlled by the viewer have gone from virtually zero to about half of such systems. By sometime in the first half of this year, all new IFE systems sold to airlines by APEX members will support closed captions of the kind codified by APEX in 2009, and systems that are not closed-caption capable will begin to be phased out.

APEX – with assistance from market research specialist IMDC – determined that as of June 2014, 38.7% of IFE systems (excluding satellite broadcast systems) on the worldwide commercial air transport fleet already support closed captions. If the number of overhead/communal screens that are not under viewer control and support only open captions are excluded from the count, then 50.6% of worldwide IFE systems support closed captions.

Some existing IFE systems might be upgraded with software changes in anticipation of the upcoming rulemaking, while in other cases even the cost of an upgrade might be considered cost-prohibitive by the airline.

Given that it was less than nine years ago that possible closed-caption solutions began to emerge, and less than six years ago that APEX was able to codify those solutions in a specification that the IFE industry could follow in developing IFE systems, many in the industry consider that real progress has been made.

Using statistics regarding the closed-caption capability of the fleet, APEX is making the industry’s case to the DOT. But the agency faces pressure from members of the US Congress, and particularly from advocacy groups for the deaf, blind and passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) that often see the glass as – at best – still half empty, particularly when considering that it could be 10 years until all aircraft IFE systems support closed captions.

In 2013 Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who retired in January 2015, introduced a bill to the US Senate requiring that video on board aircraft flying in and out of the USA be closed captioned. Senator Harkin’s landmark legislative work was on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which he authored and sponsored. As it did in 2006 (as the WAEA), APEX then engaged the DOT on behalf of the industry in an effort to balance the goal of deaf/HoH passengers having an inflight experience like other passengers against the technical limitations and costs associated with IFE systems and content delivery.

In June 2014, with only a few months left in his final term, Senator Harkin saw an opportunity to attach his bill to a transportation appropriations bill as an amendment. After the Senate Appropriations Committee sent the bill to the floor, Harkin said, “I have been trying for some time to get the airlines to provide closed captions on the movies on their airplanes. I can’t understand why they don’t do it. It doesn’t cost anything.”

In order to ensure that Congress understood that the proposed rules, rather than costing nothing, could cost millions of dollars per aircraft, APEX, through its Washington DC counsel and Technology Committee, undertook to inform Congress – as well as the DOT – of the actual facts of the matter. Congressional staffers were surprised to learn of the cost potential of the measure. As a result, the amendment was substantially revised and eventually tabled, leaving the matter to the DOT – at least for now. One of the key recommendations made to the DOT by APEX is that potential regulations should apply only to newer digital systems that have the capacity to handle closed captioning, to new aircraft for which an IFE system is purchased, and to newly purchased IFE systems for any aircraft that currently has an system that is not closed-caption capable. APEX has asked the DOT to make no rule that would include a requirement to retrofit existing aircraft with a newer system solely to achieve closed-caption capability.

In support of these recommendations, APEX has advised the DOT that a typical new MPEG-4 digital IFE system costs approximately US$1m to US$5m per aircraft, depending on the aircraft’s size. Explaining the costs, APEX cited the fact that the US FAA is required by law to certify all onboard equipment for aircraft installation and airworthiness, necessitating designs unique to IFE use and substantial additional costs and time requirements.

APEX has also advised the DOT that the life of an IFE system is 12 to 15 years, and that some systems last even longer than that, as when the aircraft is sold to another airline the system may be in use for several more years.

Beyond the capability of IFE systems to display closed captions are the costs of creating and delivering closed captions in the content files created for IFE, and also the conversion of the various content versions to conform to each airline’s content format. As those who work with IFE are aware, there are frequently multiple versions of content (edited versions for example) and there are multiple IFE system platforms in service at any time that potentially require conversion of files to match their requirements.

While APEX broke new ground in 2009 when it codified the bitmap solution for the delivery of closed captions to IFE systems supporting MPEG-1/2 and compatible with MPEG-4 systems, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, signed into law in the USA in 2010, and which began to be implemented in 2012, adopted a caption format created by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) referred to as SMPTE Timed Text 2052 as a ‘safe harbor’ for Video Programming Owners under rules for IP-delivered full-length video programming.

As a result, Timed Text has become the most likely form of closed-caption delivery between content providers and post-production. But the majority of IFE systems currently in service cannot display Timed Text. Therefore the APEX CCWG is seeking to establish a delivery profile for IFE that is rooted in Timed Text and may derive from SMPTE TT 2052 in the Ultra-Violet Common File Format (UV CFF-TT), the W3C Timed Text Simple Delivery Profile (W3C SDP), and perhaps WebVTT, but can be converted into bitmap.

Non-English closed captions 
Another area of considerable concern to airlines – particularly non-US airlines with routes in and out of the US – concerns language requirements. APEX has formally asked the DOT to limit any rules for the provision of closed captions to English language content of US origin.

Outside the USA, closed captions are not consistently available and are influenced largely by the laws of each country with respect to television broadcast and internet distribution standards. APEX has explained to the DOT that in situations where closed captions are not created for other markets – such as theatrical, television, packaged media or the internet – a requirement imposed on the airline industry to bear the costs of non-English captions would likely entail a cost that exceeds the economic structure of the service, and therefore result in the unavailability of certain content.

It is known that making the case to the DOT for English-only is a bigger challenge than getting the agency to avoid requiring costly IFE systems replacement. The potential cost of replacing an IFE system, at US$1m to US$5m per aircraft, is a meaningful figure on its own, while a cost of several hundred to a few thousand dollars to create and deliver closed caption files on a movie does not – at least on the surface – seem so onerous.

English language content produced outside the USA may or may not have captions available. Mandates by the European Commission, Australia and New Zealand, APEX advised the DOT, as well as broadcaster policies at the UK’s Office of Communications (Ofcom) and other networks, have required the availability of captions on television. But conversion of these sources into IFE-compatible captions has not been done and will be complicated by the multiplicity of television standards involved.

For much of the non-English-speaking world, closed captions are not used and are not available in those languages. In countries other than within the European Union, which has mandated that public-service television programs be captioned, and Canada, which enacted mandatory captioning on television for both English and French in 2007, further mandates may be rare. Even in the UK, where a high percentage of television content is closed captioned as a result of government mandates, such mandates do not currently apply to movie-on-demand services, where closed captioning is limited.

APEX hopes to convince the DOT that it is reasonable and prudent to limit any rulemaking to English-language content of US origin, at least until its CCWG can further investigate the extent of closed captioning outside the USA.

Technical requirements
One of the objectives of APEX’s Closed Captions Working Group (CCWG) is to establish the same specification for closed captions as for dynamic subtitles, as they will both occupy the same screen in many instances. Therefore the specification must include the Uniform Transformation Format using 8-bit blocks to represent a character, i.e. UTF-8. There is a requirement for supporting both ASCII (if the file is just plain English) and Unicode characters, and both right-to-left and left-to-right text simultaneously.

Not all post-production encoders are equipped to support this requirement, and thus some may be faced with upgrading their capability.

According to Andy Rosen of Bitlogic, also a member of the CCWG, closed-caption standards SMPTE TT, UV CFF-TT, W3C SDP, W3C ISMC and WebVTT all support UTF-8. UV CFF-TT supports bitmap, but SMPTE TT will require a conversion. It is planned that the CCWG will specify an IFE Timed Text profile as well as any conversion required to support bitmap during 2015. Content providers will be able to deliver in Timed Text, the industry will support any needed conversion into bitmap, and over time the industry will leave bitmap behind and migrate fully to Timed Text. However, given the life of IFE systems, simultaneous support of multiple IFE systems may be unavoidable for some time to come.

Rosen is a long-time SMPTE member and has been active in the development of IFE standards since the first IFE digital content delivery standard, known as APEX (WAEA) 0395, which celebrates is 20th anniversary in March 2015.

Geoff Freed, director of technology projects and web media standards at NCAM, and a member of APEX’s CCWG, is also a member of the W3C Timed Text Working Group (TTWG) and a co-author of the W3C’s Timed Text Markup Language (TTML), a non-proprietary method for providing captions and subtitles in digital media. Rosen and Freed are expected to aid in the coordination of the SMPTE and W3C standards.

International accessibility regulations
In the USA there are two principal regulations governing accessibility for air travelers: The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), under which the Department of Transportation (DOT) has jurisdiction for anything taking place inside the aircraft; and the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), under which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has jurisdiction over public facilities such as airports. Some states also have regulations, such as the California Civil Code 54.9.

Regulations with primacy in other countries include the Canadian Government Travel Policies, the UK Disability Discrimination Act, the Australian Standards for Accessible Public Transport, and certain European Union regulations such as Regulation [EC] No. 1107/2006.

In December 2014, the UK’s CAA, and other national enforcement agencies in Europe, gained legal authority to enforce EU regulations that provide for the rights of air travelers with disabilities and reduced mobility.

The EU regulations provide that disabled travelers are legally entitled to special assistance in the air – as well as help traveling through an airport, or while boarding, disembarking and during the flight. Appropriately the CAA made its announcement on December 3, 2014, the United Nations International Day
of Persons with Disabilities.

Among the EU regulations that these national enforcement agencies now have the legal podwer to enforce is European Regulation (EC) 1107/2006, originally adopted in July 2006 and updated in June 2012, which requires airlines and airports to provide special assistance at no charge for air passengers with disabilities, and for people with reduced mobility (PRM) when traveling.

About the author
Michael Childers is a long-time IFE industry consultant. He is a member of the APEX Board of Directors and chairs its Technology Committee. He co-authored APEX’s 2006 response to the DOT’s NPRM on closed captions, and was the principal editor/author of APEX Specification 0403 when it was updated in 2009 to provide for MPEG-4 and bitmap. In June 2014, when closed caption requirements were being added to a Senate appropriations bill, he traveled to Washington DC to work with APEX counsel in drafting documents for distribution on Capitol Hill to show the potential costs of such legislation, and met with Airlines for America and IATA to coordinate the effort.

He has been the editor and co-author of APEX’s documentation for use in engaging the DOT. He was an invited speaker at the DOT’s Forum on Passengers with Disabilities in 2014. In 2013 he co-represented APEX on the FAA PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee along with Rich Salter, CTO at Lumexis.

 

 

23 June 2015

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