Historic Changes Coming for Access to Hearing Aid Compatible Wireless Phones
The Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988 requires the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to ensure that all wireline telephones manufactured or imported for use in the United States must be hearing aid compatible. The scope of the Act was expanded in 2003 to include wireless phones. However, the rules established in 2003 were just a beginning, and have not been modified since. They stated that only 33% of wireless phones manufactured were required to be hearing aid compatible (HAC). Further, and more importantly, the FCC gave no guidance or timeframe to increase the percentage of phones that are HAC.
Thanks to a collaboration among HLAA, the wireless industry (represented by the Telecommunications Industries Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association®, and the Competitive Carriers Association) and consumer groups (represented by HLAA, the National Association of the Deaf and Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc.), that is all about to change.
On November 12, 2015, a consensus letter was filed with the FCC outlining a plan to make all wireless phones hearing aid compatible within the next eight years. Specifically, it requires that 66% of wireless phones be hearing aid compatible within two years; 85% within five years; and 100% within eight years.
The consensus letter goes on to suggest that these metrics should be given some oversight. To that end, beginning in year four, a task force of all stakeholders will be convened to determine the effectiveness of the rules and to make sure the benchmarks as set out are achievable. The task force will also consider the need to balance hearing aid compatibility with the need for innovation by wireless phone manufacturers.
For example, hearing aid compatibility is currently measured through standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Hearing aids can achieve an “M” rating of between 1 and 4 (M4 being the best) that determines the level of RF (radio frequency) interference between a hearing aid and phone’s microphone. They also earn a “T” rating of between 1 and 4 (T4 being the best) which rates its electromagnetic coupling for use when the consumer’s hearing device has a Telecoil. When the task force convenes they will look at the possibility of additional or alternative measurement criteria based on the data collected up until that time and make recommendations taking into consideration the technological and market needs at that time.
If the FCC adopts this agreement, it would be a leap forward for hearing aid compatibility in the wireless industry, an “historic” moment. To consumers, the adoption of these rules means greater selection of wireless phones for people who use hearing aids and cochlear implants. Given that only a limited percentage are currently HAC, knowing that in just a few years most phones will be hearing aid compatible will give consumers greater choice in their search for a new phone.
HLAA has been working diligently in the role of lead negotiator throughout the process to bring these needed changes to consumers, but the whole agreement would not have happened without the backing of some key individuals and organizations. Most notably, without the support of the FCC, and in particular, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler - who has made access to telecommunications for the entire community of people with disabilities a hallmark of his tenure - this consensus agreement would not have come to fruition. HLAA is grateful to Chairman Wheeler, the FCC and all of the industry and consumer groups who worked tirelessly over the past several months to get this proposal realized.