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July 15, 2003

Phones required to work with hearing aids

From: Cellular-News - Jul 15, 2003

The USA's telecoms regulator, the FCC has issued an order that requires wireless manufacturers and service providers to make digital wireless phones accessible to the more than 6 million individuals with hearing disabilities that use hearing aids. Specifically, the Commission modified the exemption for wireless phones under the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988 (HAC Act) to require that digital wireless phones be capable of being effectively used with hearing aids. In order to make digital wireless phones accessible to individuals who use hearing aids, the Commission found that digital wireless phone manufacturers and service providers should be required to take steps to reduce the amount of interference emitted from digital wireless phones and to provide the internal capability for telecoil coupling.

Hearing aids operate in one of two modes – acoustic coupling or telecoil coupling. Hearing aids operating in acoustic coupling mode receive and amplify all sounds surrounding the user, both desired sounds, such as a telephone’s audio signal, as well as unwanted ambient noise. Hearing aids operating in telecoil coupling mode avoid unwanted ambient noise by turning off the microphone and receiving only magnetic fields generated by telecoil-compatible telephones. In the United States, about 25-30% of hearing aids contain telecoils, which generally are used by individuals with profound hearing loss.

Approximately six million Americans use hearing aids to improve their hearing. Although analog wireless phones do not generally cause interference problems for hearing aid users, digital wireless phones can cause interference to hearing aids and cochlear implants because of electromagnetic energy emitted by the phone’s antenna, backlight, or other components. This interference can be significant enough to prevent individuals with hearing aids from using wireless phones.

The HAC Act and Section 68.4 of the Commission’s rules require most telephones to be compatible with hearing aids. However, the statute and rules exempt certain categories of telephones from the hearing aid compatibility requirements, including wireless phones. To make certain that the HAC Act kept pace with the evolution of telecommunications, Congress directed the Commission to periodically assess whether the exemption for wireless phones should be revoked or limited. Specifically, the statute requires the FCC to “revoke or otherwise limit” the exemptions if the Commission determines that specific requirements have been met. In the adopted Report and Order, the Commission found that the statutory requirements for modifying the exemption have been met. Modifying the exemption for wireless phones will serve the public interest by facilitating access by individuals with hearing disabilities to digital wireless telecommunications services, including the ability to contact public safety agencies in an emergency.

The Commission indicated that it expects hearing aid manufacturers to begin labeling hearing aid models with their specific ratings in accordance with an ANSI standard in order to assist consumers in successfully combining digital wireless handsets with hearing aids. If inadequate progress is made by these manufacturers in labeling hearing aids, the Commission plans to examine the scope of its jurisdiction over hearing aid manufacturers in order to facilitate the goal of achieving hearing aid compatibility for consumers.

In addition, the Commission encouraged digital wireless handset manufacturers and service providers to engage in outreach efforts to educate the public on hearing aid use with digital wireless phones, and to help identify compliant phones for consumers and audiologists. The Commission also announced that, through the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, it would engage in a comprehensive targeted outreach campaign, in coordination with the Food and Drug Administration, to ensure that individuals with hearing disabilities are informed of the actions taken in the Report and Order and the availability of hearing aid compatible wireless digital phones. These coordinated outreach efforts will include fact sheets and other information made available through the FCC’s web site and national call center, a Consumer Alert outlining the requirements of this Order, and dissemination of information about the accessibility of HAC-compliant digital wireless phones to schools, to the medical community, and to groups and associations representing individuals with hearing disabilities and audiologists.

Copyright 2003 Cellular-News