The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a longstanding commitment to ensuring that Americans with hearing loss are able to access wireline and wireless communications services through a wide array of phones, including voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) telephones and wireless handsets that use advanced mobile technologies. The Commission’s actions in this area have helped enable the millions of Americans with hearing loss to have greater access to and more fully benefit from wireline and wireless communications services and emerging technologies.

In FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), they propose to amend the Commission’s hearing aid compatibility (HAC) rules for wireline handsets. Specifically, they propose to take the following actions: (1) incorporate into the rules a revised industry standard developed by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) – ANSI/TIA-4965-2012 (2012 ANSI Wireline Volume Control Standard) – that appears likely to improve the ability of people with hearing loss to select wireline telephones with sufficient volume control to meet their communication needs and provide greater regulatory certainty for the industry; and

(2) apply the Commission’s wireline telephone volume control and other hearing aid compatibility requirements to handsets used with VoIP services, pursuant to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA).

(3) add a rule and request comment on setting a standard for volume control for wireless handsets to ensure more effective acoustic coupling between handsets and hearing aids or cochlear implants.

(4) require manufacturers to use exclusively the 2011 standard developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Accredited Standards Committee C63® (ASC C63® ) – Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) – ANSI C63.19-2011 (2011 ANSI Wireless HAC Standard) – to certify future handsets as hearing aid compatible;

(5) eliminate the power-down exception, if manufacturers are required to test and rate handsets exclusively under the 2011 ANSI Wireless HAC Standard.

(6) to implement section 710 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by section 102(b) of the CVAA, and to simplify the process for all equipment, wireline and wireless, to achieve hearing aid compatibility compliance, FCC seeks comment on a process for enabling industry to use new or revised technical standards for assessing hearing aid compatibility compliance, prior to Commission approval of such standards.

FCC proposes that such standards are developed by an ANSI accredited organization in accordance with a public participation process and in consultation with consumer stakeholders designated by the Commission, as required by the CVAA.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote on this topic in his blog “Back to Basics: Accessibility and Public Safety”.  In this article, Wheeler said: “Access is another core tenet of the Network Compact, and that’s why the FCC has a responsibility to make communications technology more accessible to Americans with disabilities.

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. 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. Individuals with hearing loss should not be relegated to specific services based on how such services are provided and deserve to have the same mobile communications options as other consumers.

Next month, the Commission will consider rules that would strengthen accessibility by Americans with hearing loss to emerging and future technologies and services by expanding the scope of our hearing aid compatibility requirements to all forms of voice communication. If adopted, this action would cover emerging technologies such as Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE as well as those that may develop in the future.

In addition to these rules, the Commission will lay the groundwork for future improvements by calling on stakeholders to work collaboratively to develop a consensus plan for dramatically expanding the kinds of devices that Americans with hearing loss can use. If there is a better way to consider and implement accessibility at the front end of the handset-design process, millions of Americans with hearing loss will benefit. The draft item makes clear that a consensus solution is the preferred path forward, but the Commission will also seek comment on whether there are other steps it might take to ensure 100 percent of handsets are hearing aid compatible at the same time as promoting innovation and investment. These goals are not mutually exclusive.”

Claude Stout, Executive Director, TDI sent a response to Chairman Wheeler’s blog as follows:  “Thank you for this blog. We deeply appreciate the Commission’s work on the proposed Hearing Aid Compatibility requirements. We look forward to working with industry to implement the Commission’s eventual requirements toward 100 percent compliance. This will be an additional part of our unified goal toward reaching universal design for all Americans. Individuals without disabilities get benefits, too from the design/manufacturing and standards development processes such as curb cuts and captioning decoder capability on TV sets and computers.”

At least 82% of mobile phones on the market have an M3 or M4 rating and 66% of wireless handsets are rated T3 or T4. We applaud the industry for making these great strides technically as well as for reaching out to work with consumer groups. We see this as a continuation of a positive approach by the Industry that we very much want to be part of.  However, TDI and a few other consumer organizations has joined forces with the organization Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) in filing with FCC on the topic with a message that makes it clear that the ultimate goal has remained unchanged: we want to see 100 percent of wireless handsets built to be hearing aid compatible.