Repairing a Problem with the Hearing Aid Compatibility Mandate

Today’s wireless handsets are immensely effective. By combining advanced communications functionalities with mobility, consumers are able to increase their connectedness and improve efficiency, which eases everyday burdens. These benefits, however , can be limited for all those consumers who face hearing loss or impairment and use listening to aids with their wireless handsets. FCC rules attempt to rectify this. Known as the hearing aid compatibility mandate, the particular Commission’s rules require that electronic wireless telephones function with consumer hearing aids and are available in the marketplace. Although these rules were adopted with the best of intentions, implementation offers raised a number of challenges for wireless service providers.

The Commission’s rules require that each retail wireless provider must offer handsets that meet certain specifications based on the underlying hearing aid technologies. Currently, for hearing aids that will incorporate acoustic coupling (a technology that amplifies all sounds), possibly 50 percent of the total wireless mobile phones or ten particular handsets offered by a wireless provider must exceed a benchmark measurement of M3 or better. For inductive coupling listening to aids (a technology that turns off the microphone and receives only signals from magnetic fields making use of telecoils), the requirement is that either one-third of total handsets or ten particular models offered by a service provider must exceed a measurement associated with T3 or better. 1 And recently, the particular Commission proposed to increase the listening to aid compatibility requirements for both acoustic and inductive coupling to 66 percent within two years and 85 percent within five many years. 2 What this means is consumers with hearing loss will certainly soon be able to choose from a greater collection of compliant handsets on the market.

One significant problem with the hearing aid compatibility require for wireless providers, especially smaller sized ones, and the hearing loss community is that there is currently no definitive list of which wireless handsets really meet or exceed the necessary standards set by the Commission. While it is true that Percentage rules require individual wireless handset manufacturers and providers to make available information on all hearing aid-compatible models presently offered and the associated rating information for those handsets, this hasn’t offered the comprehensiveness needed to aid conformity. In other words, providers are not certain which wireless phones rate at a standard of M3 or T3 or even better.

Such confusion has resulted in unwanted and time-consuming enforcement actions towards wireless providers which, oftentimes through no fault of their own, procured wireless mobile phones that did not meet the Commission’s minimal standards. In fact , hundreds of thousands of bucks have been paid in FCC fines just because available data regarding hearing aid compatibility compliance turned out to be inaccurate. In practice, these providers have had to incur costs for purchasing these mobile phones, marketing materials, training sales employees, preparing and filing compliance reports, only to find out later that certain phones were non-compliant and they were susceptible to Enforcement Bureau action. In my discussions with smaller wireless providers, these penalties have slowed network buildout and jeopardized their workforce, simply because they divert limited resources that could or else be used for deployment, service improvements, and personnel.

It would seem more than reasonable to require the Commission, either through the particular FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau or Office of Engineering and Technology, to maintain an accurate, user-friendly, up-to-date list (or at least updated semi-annually) not only retail providers, but also consumers, can review to inform them of various phone options and to ensure that the particular handsets they intend to purchase are hearing aid compatibility compliant. 3 But such a list doesn’t exist today. And claims have been made that the information on the Accessibility Clearinghouse site might not be completely accurate. Instead, providers are usually potentially liable for penalties if they rely on incorrect information about the compatibility of phone models.

The good news is that establishing this kind of list shouldn’t require many ways or burdensome reporting requirements: it can be done post haste to reduce the likelihood that wireless providers get unnecessarily or even unwittingly ensnared. In fact , the Commission has such information from types already submitted by industry participants (Form 655). The only thing that needs to be performed is format the information and make it available to the public, with the appropriate enforcement safeguards for providers that depend on such a list.

Accordingly, I am pleased that my Commission colleagues agreed to add additional questions as part of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking portion of last week’s item on this precise issue. Particularly, the item added questions about whether or not the Commission’s Accessibility Clearinghouse provides the necessary information to identify compliant phones, the particular format and type of information that should be included in a list or website, whether the data provided by manufacturers and service providers on the Form 655 can and should be used to automatically supplement the info in the Accessibility Clearinghouse, and regardless of whether reliance on such information should be the basis of a safe harbor or even presumption that a service provider is not within violation of our rules. four Without prejudging the comments to be received, the answers to the questions should provide a sufficient platform to address a flaw in our hearing aid compatibility requirements.

1 . Producers must meet at least a M3 or T3 rating for one-third of their handsets, with a minimum of two models, for each interface. Manufacturers and service providers that offer no more than two mobile phones for any air interface are exempt from these benchmarks for those models.

2 . It is also proposed that 100% of handsets should be up to date within 8 years, upon the Commission determination that the 100% standard is achievable. These benchmarks might apply to wireless providers and manufacturers that offer six or more handset models.

3. See, e. g., Indigo Wireless, Inc., Forfeiture Order, 29 FCC Rcd 7404 (EB 2014) (stating that the provider thought that a specific handset was compliant based on Internet sources and that “determining hearing-aid compatibility using official FCC resources is usually ‘difficult to impossible…. ‘”); General Communication, Inc., dba Alaska Digital LLC and Ak Wireless Communications, Purchase, 29 FCC Rcd 3505 (EB 2014) (stating that the provider alleged that it had difficulty in ascertaining the particular hearing aid compatibility ratings from the handsets and that it obtained the information from the handset distributors, the OET Equipment Authorization Database, and the mobile phone manufacturer’s website); Airadigm Communications, Inc. dba Airfire Cellular, Order, 28 FCC Rcd. 8842 (EB 2013) (stating that the provider asserted that it relied upon ratings information provided by a third party vendor).

4. See Improvements to Benchmarks and Related Requirements Governing Hearing Aid-Compatible Mobile Handsets, Amendment of the Commission’s Rules Governing Hearing Aid-Compatible Cellular Handsets, WT Docket Nos. 15-285, 07-250, Fourth Statement and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC 15-155, at 39-40 ¶¶ 89-90 (Nov. 20, 2015).

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