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FCC Order Leans on Standard for Wireless Compatibility with Hearing Aids

New York  August 14, 2003


Due to a recent order by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), new mobile telephone handsets will be more accessible to individuals that use hearing aids by 2008 or earlier. Wireless phone manufacturers and service providers will be required to take steps to reduce the amount of interference emitted from digital wireless phones and to adhere to specifications set in an existing American National Standard.

Approximately six million Americans use hearing aids to improve their hearing, and the devices fall into one of two operating modes – acoustic coupling or telecoil coupling. Acoustic coupling receives and amplifies all sounds near the user, both wanted and unwanted. Hearing aids operating in telecoil coupling mode avoid unwanted ambient noise by turning off the microphone and receiving only magnetic fields generated by telecoil-compatible telephones. With wireless phones, interference is caused when electromagnetic energy is emitted by a phone’s antenna, backlight, or other components. Digital wireless phones cause more interference to hearing aids and cochlear implants than analog models, however, the potential for interference between hearing aids and cell phones exists amongst all phone manufacturers, regardless of the wireless service provider or manufacturer of the hearing aid.

The Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988 (HAC Act) directed the FCC to ensure that all telephones manufactured or imported for use in the United States and all "essential" telephones are hearing aid compatible. Cell phones, along with other defined “secure” phones, were originally exempt from the HAC Act. The FCC sees the revision of this exemption as increasing the value of the wireless network by increasing its accessibility to individuals with hearing disabilities. Adopting certain performance levels set forth in a technical standard developed by ANSI-accredited Standards Committee C63 will help to accomplish this.

In 1996, ANSI Accredited Standards Committee C63: Electromagnetic Compatibility (ASC C63), administered by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, formed task group C63.19 to develop a measurement standard for hearing aid compatibility with wireless communications devices. The goal was to develop a set of parameters and tests that would evaluate and predict the compatibility of hearing aids with cellular phones. C63.19 was approved as an American National Standard in April 2001. The FCC ruling requires digital wireless phone manufacturers to provide a certain number of handsets with the internal capability for telecoil coupling, and also to begin labeling models with their specific performance ratings in accordance with the American National Standard.

"The technical standard we adopt today relies on both cell phone and hearing aid manufacturers to test and label their products in order for consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace," FCC Chairman Michael C. Powell said in a written statement.

Not all affected parties are in support of the federal agency’s decree. According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), applying the ANSI C63.19 standard to a large percentage of wireless phones is not the best way to solve interference problems for consumers who wear hearing aids. “[The] FCC mandates will unnecessarily complicate this cooperation and constrain innovative solutions to meet this challenge,” said CTIA president and CEO Tom Wheeler.

The CTIA cites the FCC’s action as one sided. “For consumers to get the most from this standard it must be applied to both the hearing aid and the digital wireless phone.” At this time, the FCC’s action applies only to the wireless industry.

CTIA is the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, representing carriers, manufacturers and wireless Internet providers. www.wow-com.com

A statement from the FCC can be viewed here.

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