Out for comment: Shift to function-based, rather than technology-based, regulatory approach, and mandatory 100% HAC compliance

The Wireless Telecommunications and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureaus are looking to refresh the record in a couple of old, but ongoing, rulemaking dockets dealing with hearing aid compatibility (HAC) regulations. In particular, the Bureaus have asked for input on two questions: (1) should HAC rules apply to devices based on how those devices are used – for voice calling – rather than on the type of technology they use; and (2) should the rules require HAC compliance by 100% of covered handsets instead of just a percentage?

HAC regulations require telephone handsets – both wireline and wireless – to be usable by persons who wear hearing aids. Wireless handsets must not interfere with the operation of hearing aids (such as by causing a “buzz” in the ear of the wearer); and the earpieces of both wired and wireless handsets are required to generate a magnetic field that links to the “telecoil” feature of hearing aids, allowing the sound to be reproduced directly by the hearing aid. Wireless handsets are labeled with “M” (for “microphone”) and “T” (for “telecoil”) ratings, reflecting how well they perform with hearing aids. All wireless handset manufacturers and wireless service providers must offer a certain minimum number of HAC models, and the FCC has imposed very large forfeitures for non-compliance.

Historically, HAC requirements have been based on the type of network with which a handset is used, rather than the manner in which the handset is used. That means that the requirements have focused primarily on devices using traditional CDMA (used by Verizon and Sprint) and GSM (used by AT&T and T-Mobile) cellphone technologies. However, reliance on those technologies is on the wane in the face of the rapid growth of telephone calling through Wi-Fi systems and the impending deployment of voice-over-LTE service. Additionally, an increasing number of households no longer have wireline phones and rely exclusively on wireless services for emergency calls (including E911 emergency calls). Because of these developments, the existing rules do not reach an increasing percentage of calling situations and may, as a result, lead to disappointed consumer expectations. An obvious possible solution to this problem: update the rules!

By imposing HAC requirements based on the manner in which devices would be utilized rather than the devices’ underlying technology, the FCC would bring LTE phones and satellite phones into the HAC regulatory fold. The FCC might also extend coverage to handsets used in private networks that don’t interconnect with public switched telephone network (thus reducing situations where hearing impairment can disqualify a hearing aid wearer from a job opportunity).

With respect to extending HAC requirements to all devices provided by manufacturers and service providers (as opposed to some minimum percentage of available devices), the Bureaus see several potential benefits for both consumers and the FCC itself. Life would presumably be easier for consumers: because all available devices would be HAC-compliant, consumers could in theory buy any handset without having to worry about which phones work best with their hearing aid (or trying to extract such information from poorly-informed retail sales personnel).

On the administrative side, the FCC could eliminate the annual reports it now demands from service providers and manufacturers to confirm that they are providing the required minimum percentage of HAC-compliant devices. Universal HAC-compliance would also allow the FCC to abandon proposals it has been pressured to adopt (but has not thus far adopted) to require independent retailers to allow hearing aid wearers to test phones in the store before buying. Such testing would be unnecessary because all handsets would theoretically be compliant. And the Commission could also eliminate the “product refresh” rule, which requires a manufacturer, when it decides to offer a new model, to adjust the mix of new and existing models it provides.

The Bureaus ask for comments on costs and benefits to the handset manufacturing, carrier, and hearing aid industries if HAC regulations were to be revised along the lines described in the Bureaus’ request for comments. They also ask whether the laboratories which test phones for HAC compliance are equipped to test some of the newer technologies and invites parties to suggest whether and where exceptions to the rules might be needed for technological reasons.

The deadline for comments has not yet been set. Check back here to find out when the date has been announced.

(Blogmeister’s Note: FHH will be actively participating in this proceeding on behalf of its client, the Hearing Industries Association, which is the trade association of hearing aid manufacturers.)