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FCC: Hearing Aid Compatibility for Wireless Voice Technology

  • Published: 2015-12-21 - Contact: Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at www.fcc.gov
  • Synopsis: FCC agreement between consumer advocates and industry associations as pathway to 100% compatibility for wireless devices.

Main Document

"Recognizing that wireless voice communications increasingly operate via alternative technologies, the Commission has expanded the rules to cover IP-based communications services like Wi-Fi Calling and Voice-over-LTE."

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission took major steps to ensure greater access to wireless communications services and handset devices for the tens of millions of Americans with hearing loss.

New rules and proposed rules passed reflect a consensus-driven approach to foster accessibility for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing while promoting innovation and investment by the wireless industry.

The action taken has two parts.

First, the Fourth Report and Order expands the scope of the hearing aid compatibility rules to cover the wireless technologies of today and tomorrow.

Until now, the hearing aid compatibility rules generally were limited only to handsets that used traditional cellular networks.

Recognizing that wireless voice communications increasingly operate via alternative technologies, the Commission has expanded the rules to cover IP-based communications services like Wi-Fi Calling and Voice-over-LTE. In addition, the new rules will require that future technologies comply with current and future hearing aid compatibility rules, encouraging manufacturers to consider hearing aid compatibility at the earliest stages of the product design process, ensuring that consumers with hearing loss are not always trying to catch up to technology and providing industry with additional regulatory certainty.

Second, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks comment on a landmark consensus plan that would, for the first time, establish a consensus path to ensure that all wireless handsets are accessible to and usable by people who use hearing aid devices and cochlear implants. The consensus plan was developed through collaborative discussions between consumer and industry representatives.

The current hearing aid compatibility rules require service providers and handset manufacturers to ensure that a specified fraction or number of their offerings are hearing aid compliant. The consensus approach would give consumers with hearing loss the same range of device choices available to any other consumer while at the same time preserving industry's ability to innovate. Action by the Commission November 19, 2015 by Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 15-155). Chairman Wheeler, Commissioners Clyburn, Rosenworcel, Pai and O'Rielly approving. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioners Clyburn, Rosenworcel, Pai and O'Rielly issuing statements. (WT Docket No. 07-250)

Statements:

Re: Amendment of the Commission's Rules Governing Hearing Aid-Compatible Mobile Handsets, WT Docket No. 07-250; Improvements to Benchmarks and Related Requirements Governing Hearing Aid-Compatible Mobile Handsets, WT Docket No. 15-285.

STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL O'RIELLY

Today's order updates the Commission's rules to ensure that more Americans with hearing impairments will be able to access innovative wireless handsets offering the latest voice communication technologies. Generally, expanding the scope to new wireless bands seems to make sense and is consistent with our obligations under the law. However, certain assumptions and conclusions, particularly about future technologies, give me some pause, but I am willing to let it proceed with the fair notice that these may need to be revisited as more information becomes available. The accompanying notice, which I am willing to support, seeks comment on a consensus proposal that would increase the number of hearing aid compatible handsets over time, while permitting innovation and investment in new wireless technologies. The timeframes and procedures in the proposal are properly structured to enable wireless providers and manufacturers the needed flexibility to experiment with handset design, materials, antenna placement and batteries as they develop 5G networks and devices. Nevertheless, I must ask whether further regulation and burdens are absolutely necessary here.

For instance, the Commission is already looking at volume control issues in another proceeding, which may address some of the difficulties encountered by hearing-impaired consumers. Further, some assert that much of the discontent, to the extent it exists, may stem from a lack of information about hearing aids, making it difficult to select the best handset for a specific model.

On a side note, the fact that some wireless providers are unaware of which handsets are actually compliant with FCC rules has come up in my meetings as the wireless providers have faced unnecessary enforcement actions. The Commission has an obligation to improve this by presenting reliable and comprehensible information to consumers and providers, and I intend to fix this issue. To be clear, this effort can and will be done without further burdens or filing requirements on wireless providers or handset manufacturers.

I thank the Chairman and Commission staff for incorporating this edit and others into the item and look forward to engaging with all interested parties as we proceed to an order. Lastly, let me thank the tireless work of the industry participants and hearing loss community for their good work on the particulars of this item.

STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER AJIT PAI

In 1939, when filming the movie Secret Service of the Air, a young actor suffered permanent hearing loss when another cast member fired a .38 caliber pistol just six inches from his right ear. Over 40 years later, that actor became the first U.S. President to wear a hearing aid while in office. President Ronald Reagan was a powerful advocate for hard-of-hearing individuals. Indeed, in 1988, he signed the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act into law. That statute, its subsequent amendments, and our rules implementing its provisions are all designed to ensure that the tens of millions of Americans with hearing loss have access to innovative devices and technologies.

So I am pleased to support today's action, which seeks to ensure that our hearing aid compatibility rules keep pace with changes in technology while promoting the development of new innovations for consumers. We do that in the Order by applying our rules to a broader range of voice services. And we do that in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking by seeking comment on ways we can increase the percentage of devices that comply with our rules. On this score, I commend the efforts of the hearing loss community, including Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Hearing Loss Association of America, and the National Association of the Deaf, as well as CTIA, CCA, and TIA for reaching a consensus path forward. And I am glad that the Notice seeks comment on implementing that approach.

I am also pleased because the Notice does not focus solely on ensuring compliance with a particular technical standard. Instead, it seeks comment on a variety of novel ways that providers could ensure that their phones function for those with hearing loss, whether that's through the use of Bluetooth or another creative solution. In this case, what matters most is the end, not the means.

I am also glad that the Notice now seeks comment on whether we should adopt a time limit or shot clock for acting on requests for waivers of our hearing aid compatibility rules. Putting ourselves on the clock is a good way to ensure that we stay on time. If a new, innovative technology simply cannot comply with our rules, it is important to give its creator a definitive timeframe for FCC action and thus certainty about whether it can be brought to market.

In a 1983 letter to the director of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, President Reagan wrote that he was “pleased to learn that my wearing a hearing aid may help remove the stigma which some feel is attached to their use. By modernizing our approach to the legislation he signed, we are doing our part to help remove barriers that might otherwise prevent those with hearing loss from full participation in American life. I suspect the Gipper would be proud.

STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL

Five years ago last month the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was signed into law. Five years is a long time. A lot changes-and as the parent of a five-year old I can say that with some authority. Five years ago, tablets were new, 4G service was just beginning, and mobile payments were in their infancy. Five years ago, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act charged us with extending our hearing aid compatibility rules to a broader range of modern wireless devices. To continue to give meaning to this law, we need to update our approach to reflect the advances of technology. That is what we do today.

So I am pleased to support this Order. We expand the scope of our rules and apply them to emerging voice services. This is the right thing to do. After all, consumers with hearing loss do not distinguish between calls delivered over a wireless carrier's network or Wi-Fi-they simply want the call to go through. They just want to hear a voice on the other side. I also am happy to support this rulemaking. We seek comment on a proposal that will put us on the path to making 100 percent of mobile handsets hearing aid compatible, while continuing to clear the way for more innovation and investment. Kudos to the consumer advocates, wireless carriers, and manufacturers who have put this proposal before us. Your cooperative efforts will help us help millions more with hearing loss gain rightful access to modern wireless services.

STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER MIGNON L. CLYBURN

Five years and one month ago, I had the privilege of watching President Barack Obama, with the legendary Stevie Wonder by his side, sign into law the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act or CVAA. This moment was one of the highlights of my tenure as an FCC Commissioner for it codified this agency's role in advancing the key goals of CVAA: individuals with disabilities should have the same access to emerging Internet Protocol-based communication and video programming technologies in the 21st century as other Americans.

This Order goes farther than any other item, I have considered to date, to ensure that the tens of million Americans, who suffer from hearing loss, have access to the most advanced communications technologies as they develop. Our current rules cover only handsets used with two-way voice or data services classified as Commercial Mobile Radio Service, or CMRS, and only to the extent those networks meet certain technical requirements. In this Order, however, these rules will now cover the emerging wireless technologies of the future. No longer is the scope just limited to CMRS networks. The rules now extend to handsets used with any commercial terrestrial mobile service that enables two-way real-time voice communications among a substantial portion of the public. They also cover those services that use pre-installed software applications.

I am also overjoyed by the Notice because the lead proposal is based on a historic agreement that the commercial mobile industry, equipment manufacturers, and accessibility advocates reached just last week and it will dramatically change our approach to measuring hearing aid compatibility. Our current rules require service providers and handset manufacturers to ensure that a specified fraction or number of their offered handsets meet applicable standards for hearing aid compatibility. These standards are known as acoustic coupling, or M-rating, and inductive coupling, or T rating. The percentage for these models varies based on several factors, but they generally range from one-third to one-half of the covered models.

We should move to an approach that replaces the current fractional benchmark method with a 100 percent regime. In other words, every handset should comply with both standards. The parties agreed that, within two years of the effective date of these new benchmark rules, 66 percent of wireless handset models must comply with both standards and, within eight years, if the Commission determines it is technically feasible, 100 percent of wireless handsets must meet both standards. Finding a path to have the industry agree on a goal of 100 percent compliance, should greatly encourage manufacturers to consider hearing aid compatibility at the earliest stages of the product design process. This represents substantial progress and all parties who signed the agreement are to be commended.

I want to thank Roger Sherman and his staff in the Wireless Bureau for their presentations and excellent work on this item. I also want to recognize Karen Peltz Strauss for her tireless efforts on behalf of people living with disabilities. Karen was instrumental to the CVAA being passed and we are grateful for her service.

STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN TOM WHEELER

Since 2003, the Commission's wireless hearing aid compatibility rules have sought to ensure that Americans with hearing loss have access to telephone service through a wide array of wireless handsets and other devices used for voice communications. Today, we take a significant step toward modernizing our hearing aid compatibility rules to keep pace with past and future advances in the wireless handset marketplace.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) requires that a wide array of mobile devices are accessible for people with hearing loss. At the same time, the law dictates that we expand hearing aid compatibility requirements only where technologically feasible and where the new obligations would not increase costs to such a point that the devices are not marketable. Today's rules are both pro-accessibility and pro-innovation.

Until now, the hearing aid compatibility rules have been focused on handsets used with traditional cellular networks and have only required accessibility for a fractional subset of devices. For example, the rules did not apply to IP-based voice services such as voice over LTE (VoLTE) or Wi-Fi calling. Individuals with hearing loss should not be relegated to specific services based on the often technologically distinct but practically indistinguishable particulars of how such services are provided and deserve to have the same mobile communications options as other consumers. Most consumers who use hearing aids don't care about the underlying technology specs. They just want their devices to be accessible and fully functional. That's why the rules we adopt today eliminate uncertainty about the scope of compliance requirements. As a result, the rules now extend, with limited exceptions, to handsets used with any terrestrial mobile service that enables two-way real-time voice communications among members of the public.

The Report and Order updates our rules to cover modes of voice communications that are increasingly available to, and relied upon by, the public, as well as those that may develop in the future. We expand the scope of these rules beyond handsets that use traditional cellular networks to cover the emerging wireless technologies of today and tomorrow. The action we take in the Report and Order will require that future technologies comply with our hearing aid compatibility rules, ensuring that consumers with hearing loss are not always trying to catch up to technology and providing industry with additional regulatory certainty.

However, consistent with our statutory obligation to expand hearing aid compatibility requirements without unnecessarily hampering innovation and investment, the new rules do not cover certain narrow types of service, and they continue to allow manufacturers and service providers to obtain waivers for new technologies if certain conditions are met.

In addition, today's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks comment on a groundbreaking consensus plan developed through collaborative discussions among consumer and industry representatives. Their plan would, for the first time, establish a goal of achieving hearing aid compatibility for one hundred percent of new handsets, and it would also set out a staged roadmap, fixed timeline, and benchmarks to get to that important point. We seek comment on this approach, but we also note that we presumptively support it, and we highlight it in the NPRM as the core proposal.

Together, these two actions – expanding the scope to cover new technologies and enlisting stakeholders to make all devices compatible – will result in greater access to wireless technologies for the tens of millions of Americans with hearing loss. This approach reflects a vote of confidence in the American innovation economy. We are not forced to choose between innovative technologies on the one hand and devices accessible to people with hearing loss on the other. American innovation can enable – not limit- accessibility for all devices and technologies by those with hearing loss.

Thank you to the Wireless Bureau and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau for their work on this item.



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