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May 1, 2006

Deadline Looms for Hearing Aid Compatibility

From: Wireless Week - USA - May 1, 2006

By September, Tier 1 carriers are required to offer at least five hearing aid compatible (HAC) handsets in each of the air interfaces they use.

By Carrie Printz
May 1, 2006
Wireless Week

Most wireless carriers and manufacturers are confident they can meet the upcoming deadlines for new FCC requirements on hearing aid compatibility, including those dealing with both RF emissions and telecoil coupling.

That's becaue most major carriers and manufacturers, including Cingular Wireless, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless, Motorola, Nokia, LG Electronics MobileComm and Sony Ericsson, already have at least some RF-emission compliant handsets on the market.

Still, it has taken ongoing efforts on the part of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) Hearing Aid Compatibility Working Group 9, a technical group that focuses on hearing aid compatibility in wireless GSM handsets. Its members include representatives from the wireless and hearing aid industries as well as the hearing-disabled community.

The group has been working on revisions to an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard used to gauge hearing aid compatibility. If approved by the FCC within the next couple of months, the revised standard should offer what industry representatives agree is a better measure than what is currently in place for one group of GSM handsets that have posed a problem.

"The science of putting together cell phones and hearing aids is a new one, and, as with any new science, there have been growing pains," says Susan Mazrui, Cingular's director of federal regulatory affairs. "The first problem is how do you define if you've made a handset hearing aid compatible? Then, how do you do the testing, and how do you reflect what the users are experiencing and make a handset acceptable to them?"

Although analog wireless phones do not usually cause interference with hearing aids or cochlear implants, digital phones sometimes do because of electromagnetic energy emitted by the phone's antenna, backlight or other components. For that reason, the FCC imposed a set of requirements to ensure an increase in the number of digital wireless phones that are hearing aid compatible.

By Sept. 16, 2006, nationwide (Tier 1) carriers must provide five hearing aid compatible handset models in each of the air interfaces they use, be it GSM, CDMA or iDEN. (By September 2005, they were required to offer four such handsets or 25 percent of their total digital wireless handset models offered nationwide.) Meanwhile, manufacturers had to make two compliant handsets by each of those dates.

MOVING TARGETS Keeping up with all of the requirements has proved challenging, according to company representatives. "From an industry perspective, we've had deadlines in 2005 and 2006, and not completely two years after that, we have the 50-percent requirement," says Steve Coston, technical manager for the regulatory project office of Sony Ericsson. "It will be a challenge for all of us to support. We'll have to start early and build in the design at the front end."

The FCC defines hearing aid compatibility for wireless handsets in terms of two parameters: RF emissions and telecoil coupling. Cell phones that comply with the RF requirements must receive either an M3 or M4 designation and are labeled on the box.

The FCC also is requiring that manufacturers make two handsets that work effectively with hearing aids set in telecoil mode by September 2006. People who use the telecoil mode for their hearing aids often have a more profound hearing loss. A telecoil blocks out extraneous noise and picks up the voice signal from the electromagnetic field that leaks from compatible telephones.

"Right now, we're working off a draft version of the telecoil standard, so knowing the final requirements is tough," says Michael Henson, director of test and technical support for LG Electronics MobileComm. "We have solutions for the current draft requirements, but we need to wait and see what the final standard will be before implementing them."

Meeting the September 2005 deadline for RF emissions proved a challenge for GSM carriers and manufacturers that asked for more time. Much of the problem was due to the fact that under the ANSI standard, GSM in both the 850 and 1900 PCS bands were subjected to the same measurement scales and ratings for electromagnetic radiation even though the user experience for the two is quite different.

As a result, the proposed revisions to the ANSI standard seek to align 850 band rating requirements with real-world audio results.

Cingular received a waiver allowing it to offer handsets that meet the hearing aid compatibility test only in the 1900 band until Aug. 1, when it must provide phones that qualify in both bands. If the revisions to the standard are approved, Cingular representatives are confident they will be able to meet that deadline, as well as the September telecoil requirement. Meanwhile, the carrier currently offers seven handsets that meet the 1900 MHz band requirements.

T-Mobile also received a waiver, but developed five compliant handsets in both bands within 60 days after the initial deadline, according to Harold Salters, director of federal regulatory affairs at T-Mobile.

The challenge for meeting the requirements in the GSM market is overall handset design. "We do not want to lower the TX power of the handsets, so we need to develop design strategies – such as radiation power of the antenna or internal components of the handset – that at the same time do not affect the look and feel of the handset," Henson says.

FUTURE REQUIREMENTS Most looming are the 2008 requirements for hearing aid compatibility in 50 percent of all carriers' and manufacturers' handsets.

"Half of our portfolio makes it incredibly challenging, especially if you don't want something the size of a tumor on your phone," says Scott Kelley, disability access manager for Motorola.

Ultimately, one of the main challenges to the industry is marketing the new handsets to the hearing-impaired community.

Sony Ericsson and others are attempting to do so by providing information to audiologists and the hearing-impaired community, as well as by placing "call-out" cards in stores. "A lot of it will probably be through word of mouth," Gary adds.

© 2006, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.