FCC proposal would allow Part 15 ALDs to provide simultaneous translation to non-handicapped users

The inability to understand a foreign language may not be a handicap, but the FCC is looking to expand the use of unlicensed auditory assistance devices in the 72-76 MHz band – previously restricted to amplification for handicapped persons – to include simultaneous language translation for both disabled and non-disabled persons.

Auditory assistance devices (also known as assistive listening devices, or ALDs) provide a variety of services. Generally, ALDs allow hard-of-hearing people to participate in events together with people with normal hearing.  Sound is transmitted wirelessly to a receiver, which amplifies the sound and delivers it to headphones, without disturbing non-users in the room.   

In large venues, ALDs are more effective than hearing aids, where the microphone is part of the device in the ear.  The further away the sound source is from the microphone, the more difficult it is to produce clear sound and to mask out unwanted distracting sounds.  With an ALD, the microphone or other audio input is located at the source of the sound, where it is most effective, and a signal is transmitted wirelessly to listeners.  ALDs are found in theaters, museums, and other public places and are in many instances required by disability laws.  (Personal systems are also permitted for those who want and can afford them.)

There are two flavors of ALD.

One operates in the 72-76 MHz band under the unlicensed rules in Part 15; the other operates in the 216-217 MHz band under Part 95 (in the Low Power Radio Service). The Commission’s rules impose different limitations on the two flavors. Among other differences, Part 15 devices are restricted to providing auditory assistance only for handicapped persons; Part 95 devices can provide such auditory assistance, too, but they can also serve broader purposes, including simultaneous language translation.

One ALD manufacturer, Williams Sound, asked the FCC to expand the permissible use of Part 15 ALDs to include simultaneous language translation, thus allowing translation systems to be set up in meeting rooms without having to wire each individual listening position.  Williams’ proposal would conform the Part 15 rules with the Part 95 rules.  As Williams saw it, the logic behind such an expansion was sufficiently obvious that the Commission could just declare it to be so, without further ado.

The FCC declined that request, saying that a ruling would stretch the precise language of the Part 15 rules too far.  However, the Commission agreed that the idea was a good one, so the FCC proposed to amend the rule to allow the use of ALDs in the 72-76 MHz band for language translation, regardless of whether or not the users are hard-of-hearing. The Commission recognizes that that change would likely lead to an increase in the use of Part 15 ALDs.

One possible problem with the proposal: the 72-76 ALD band sits immediately between TV Channels 4 and 5.  If ALDs proliferate too much, the possibility of interference to TV reception will increase.  If the FCC repacks a lot of TV stations into the VHF band, as it has indicated it wants to (to make room for more wireless spectrum), the likelihood of interference to TV reception will increase, at least to over-the-air TV reception.  Cable and satellite boxes are shielded and should be relatively immune to interference, even if they use a Channel 4 wired output to the TV set.  It remains to be seen whether TV broadcasters will complain about the increased interference risk.

The deadlines for comments and reply comments have not yet been set – that will depend on when the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is published in the Federal Register. Check back here for updates.