At the AccessWorld Tech Summit in March 2017, part of the American Foundation for the Blind's annual Leadership Conference, I was so excited while listening to a presentation from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about accessible devices including cable boxes. I figured I could call my cable company when I got home and get an accessible cable box. I was wrong.
FCC Regulations Summary for Accessible Cable Boxes
The FCC conference presenters were Suzy Rosen Singleton, Chief, and Will Schell, Attorney-Advisor, Disability Rights Office, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. They focused on access to video description.
Mr. Shel told the audience that any device that plays video and is made after December 2016 must be accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. Accessibility includes the ability to use menus, controls, and settings. In addition, the video description setting must be easily accessible with a specific key or button.
Accessible set-top boxes must be available on request from the TV provider, at no cost. The largest cable companies are required to have the accessible boxes available now.
In 2016, Charter Communications acquired Time Warner Cable, which was my cable company before the merger. So, my current cable provider is Spectrum, which is owned by Charter Communications. According to a May 2016 CNN report, Charter was the number three provider in the US and Time Warner was number two, with Comcast being number one. Charter also purchased Bright House, a smaller cable company. CNN projected that Charter Communications cable service will be in over 18 million homes in the US. Therefore, after the merger, Charter Communications became a major player in the cable industry. I live in New York City, which is a major market.
First Contact: Not Encouraging
When I got home from the conference in March, I called Spectrum to ask about accessible cable boxes. I was on the phone that night for well over an hour as I got transferred from person to person. Most of the people I spoke with had no idea what I was talking about. Others thought I meant closed captioning, not text-to-speech output on the cable device. I finally reached someone who said I already had an accessible cable box. When I explained that there wasn't any text-to-speech, she said Spectrum does not have a voice-activated remote.
After a very long time, I spoke to someone who said she knew what to do. She said Spectrum needed to send me the necessary computer codes. I asked if the codes worked with the Mac and she said they did. Apparently, cable box accessibility was available through my computer. Wrong.
She tried to send the codes but that did not work. She said I needed a different modem. An appointment was scheduled for a technician to fix the problem. I was still very hopeful.
Spectrum's First Solution: a Laptop
A technician and supervisor came to my house twice. Both were extremely nice and tried very hard. We spent many hours on this problem. The end result was that the Mac could not use the Spectrum codes. Furthermore, I could not use my cable box and my old modem was fine. Instead, Spectrum gave me a large Windows laptop with the Spectrum app and NVDA screen reader installed. The only way I had access to the Spectrum guide and descriptive video was through the laptop.
This was unacceptable. I could not watch TV with my family and still have complete accessibility. Furthermore, I ended up showing the technician and supervisor the best way to teach someone how to use the Spectrum app with NVDA.
Blaming Time Warner for Spectrum's Problems with Accessibility
I discovered Spectrum's accessibility website on my own and found that there was an easy way to turn on accessibility features, but I could not get them to work. I called the support number on the website, asked to talk to a supervisor, and finally got through after being on hold for a very long time. He asked where I lived. He explained that Time Warner did not install the necessary equipment for accessibility prior to the merger with Charter Communications. Therefore, it was Time Warner's fault and not Spectrum's that I did not have an accessible cable box.
Next Move: Involving the FCC
It was time for me to take further action. I filed a complaint with the FCC indicating that Spectrum did not provide an accessible cable box. The FCC served my complaint on March 31, 2017. On April 18, I received a phone call from Charter Communications. They understood my frustration and assured me that Charter was working to improve accessibility for the visually impaired and training for technicians and customer support staff. In another phone call, they asked if I would like to be part of their Roku trial. The Roku works with the Spectrum app, not the cable box. The Roku was to be a temporary alternative to the laptop while they worked on improving accessibility on the cable box. I agreed to participate. Several days later, I received a copy of a letter from Charter Communications to the FCC. The letter indicated that I would be taking part in their Roku trial.
Spectrum's Next Solution: The Roku
On June 2, a technician came to install my Roku. After the installation was complete, I had two questions for him. The first was: in the Spectrum app, can you go directly to a specific channel with the Roku? The second was: how do you turn on audio description when in the Spectrum app? The technician had never heard of audio description and kept thinking I was talking about the cable guide.
The technician did not know the answers to my questions and he had to make several calls. No, you can't jump to a specific channel with the Spectrum app and Roku. The choices are to move with the arrow keys channel by channel until you find the one you want. Another option is to keep scrolling for a few seconds, see where you are in the channel list, and then scroll until you get to the channel you want.
The Spectrum technician and the people he called for assistance did not know that although I could not search for a specific channel (since the Roku does not have a number pad), I could put my favorite channels in a group, making them easier to locate.
I was told that I could not access audio description with the Roku. This was incorrect. The technician said that I would be hearing from someone at Spectrum in about a week to discuss my experience.
The Right Answers
I did not hear from Charter for five weeks. I received an email from Charter's Manager of Accessibility at that time, asking if I would complete a survey about my Roku experience. I agreed and added that I want the ability to go directly to a specific channel and I want audio description.
He sent me a document showing how to access audio description through the Roku. The document also contained information about the Roku's layout, using the on-screen program guide, creating favorite channels, features available in the Spectrum app, and more. If the technician had this document when the Roku was installed, he would have had the correct answers to my questions and I would have had less aggravation.
Spending Time with the Roku
Spectrum provided a Roku Premier+ streaming media player. It is similar to the Apple TV. An HDMI port on my television was used to connect the small Roku box. The box is approximately 5 inches long by 5 inches wide by 1 inch high. The Roku remote has a Back button on the top left and a Home button on the top right. Underneath these buttons is a center button surrounded by four buttons. The four buttons are used to navigate up, down, left, and right. The center button is for making a selection.
Below those buttons are an Instant Replay button on the left and a Star button on the right. The Instant Replay button is for rewinding some on-demand content. The Star button is for accessing options. Below the Instant Replay and Star buttons are Rewind, Play, and Forward buttons. There are more buttons, but Spectrum recommends not using them.
The Roku's speech output is adjustable, but it is nowhere near as good as speech on the Apple TV. You cannot rearrange apps on the home screen as with the Apple TV. I am happy to say that it is relatively easy to turn on audio description. Even though Favorite channels can be selected, it is not possible to move directly to a specific channel.
Since I share my TV with sighted people, when I start to use the Roku I need to switch TV input from the cable box to Roku.
Although I can use the Roku remote to get to the audio guide and get to my favorite channels, several button presses are required. Since my Roku remote does not have a number pad, I cannot quickly jump to a channel.
My Roku has locked up several times. Either it stopped talking or it didn't speak or show anything on the screen. Sighted assistance could not get it to work. We needed to turn off the cable box or the TV to fix the problem.
Although the Roku is a work-around for Spectrum, there is a lot of room for improvement. It is unacceptable that Spectrum is the second largest cable company in the country yet they are unable to provide accessibility through their cable boxes for (former) Time Warner Cable subscribers. According to Spectrum, Time Warner didn't do their part in making the necessary equipment available for users, but Spectrum knew this merger was coming in advance; it didn't happen overnight. Customer support and technicians need considerable training to learn about the accessibility features and how to use and install them. Meanwhile, Comcast and Verizon FIOS have accessible cable boxes where no extra equipment is required.
Related Recommendation: iOS TV Guide App
TV Guide has a free app for iOS that has good accessibility and is useful if you don't have easy access to the guide on your cable box. The app works with iOS 8 and above and there is a watchOS app as well.
The first time you use the app it is necessary to enter information including your name, provider, and email.
There are five tabs at the bottom of the screen: Listings, Watch List, Discover, Videos, and More. At the top of the screen is a Search Box where you can search by channel or program.
There is a complete list of which channels you receive through your provider. There are several options including All Channels or Only Favorite channels. Select a favorite channel by double tapping on the channel number in the channel list. Near the top of the next screen, there will be a button to add the channel to your Favorites list.
When going through the listings, the channel name will be followed by which program is currently on. Double tapping on a program will load a new page with program details, an option to add the program to your watch list, and an option to set an alert for that program. When done, activate the Back button in the upper left corner.
The Discover tab has program recommendations. The Videos tab has video recommendations. The More tab has information including your watch list, listings, and settings.
I frequently use this app and find it to be a quick way to find out what is on.