Help for the Language-Impaired

Definition of  “Auditory Assistance Device” expanded to permit equipment for language translation.

Back in September of 2011, we posted about a proposed change to the FCC’s rules to allow the use of unlicensed auditory assistance devices  (AADs) for simultaneous language translation. The FCC has now implemented that change, and more.

AADs allow hard-of-hearing people to participate in events together with people with normal hearing in settings like classrooms, theaters, and houses of worship. A low-power radio transmitter sends sound to the user’s receiver, which amplifies the sound and delivers it to headphones without disturbing non-users in the room. Sound quality is much better than with a conventional hearing aid because the microphone is closer to the source. In some venues, AADs are required by disability laws. Personal systems are also permitted for those who want and can afford them.

AADs operate in the 72-76 MHz band under Part 15 of the Commission’s rules, which means they do not need an FCC license. The relevant definition has heretofore limited them to applications for providing auditory assistance to “handicapped persons.” But no longer.

In 2009, AAD manufacturer Williams Sound asked the FCC for a declaratory ruling that would allow the use of AADs for transmitting simultaneous language translation signals, saving the hassle of wiring up each listener to the translator. “[D]ifficulty understanding speech due to the inability to comprehend the spoken language is a handicap,” Williams reasoned, “and the handicap may be overcome with auditory assistance equipment supporting simultaneous language translation.”

Good try. Rather than issue the requested declaratory ruling, the FCC instead launched a rulemaking. Most commenters supported the new rule. The only opposition came from a company that makes more expensive equipment based on infrared technology, and one that feared greater use by the non-disabled would undermine the effectiveness of the technology for the disabled. The FCC wasn’t convinced.

That’s not to say that the AAD manufacturers got away clean. The FCC limited the out-of-band emissions from AADs to the very low default level required of unlicensed devices generally. Because the 72-76 MHz band is tucked between VHF TV channels 4 and 5, the out-of-band signals can threaten interference to viewers, especially of channels 2-6. The FCC took the excuse of expanded AAD applications to reduce the out-of-band limit for all AADs from a relatively generous 675 billionths of a watt down to a minuscule three. 

Existing devices are grandfathered in. The FCC set a limit of 18 months from the new rules’ effective date for certification of devices under the old standard, and three years for manufacture, importation, marketing, and installation.

Interestingly, TV broadcasters neither opposed wider use of 72-76 MHz nor asked for the lower out-of-band limits. Either they are unconcerned about the risk of interference or, with the incentive auctions looming, have bigger things to worry about.

The new rules are set to take effect 30 days after the FCC’s Report and Order is published in the Federal Register. Check back here for updates.

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