The FCC issued on Oct.30, 2015 a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would update several rules governing hearing aid compatible (HAC) telephones and handsets.  The proposed rules apply to manufactures, including, for the first time, manufacturers of “VoIP handsets.”  In summary, the NPRM proposes (1) updating volume control requirements, and (2) extending the current rules and proposed volume control requirements to handsets used with VoIP services.  The FCC also proposes modifying the procedures by which standards are set and adopted by industry.

Legal Background

In 1988, Congress enacted section 710 of the Communications Act, which requires all telephones manufactured or imported for use in the United States to provide an “internal means for effective use with hearing aids that are designed to be compatible with telephones which meet established technical standards for hearing aid compatibility.”  Initially, the Commission’s regulations implementing section 710 required that telephones have a built-in electromagnetic coil, or telecoil, to allow inductive coupling between telephone handsets and hearing aids.  In 1996, the Commission adopted volume control requirements.  These rules are codified in Part 68 of the FCC’s rules. 

In 2010, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) extended the mandates of section 710 beyond traditional “telephones” used over the public switched telephone network (PSTN), to “advanced communications services” – i.e., to VoIP and other yet-to-be developed services.  The CVAA also (1) authorizes the FCC to delegate authority to establish or approve technical standards for implementing section 710, (2) requires the FCC to consult with the public, including people with hearing loss, in establishing or approving such technical standards, and (3) allows manufacturers to rely on compliance with relevant technical standards to establish that their products are hearing-aid compatible.  

Technical Background

Hearing aids operate by using a microphone to pick up sound waves, converting the sound waves into electrical signals that are amplified by the hearing aid’s speaker.  Distortion or amplification of unwanted sound (i.e., noise) often occurs when using telephone handsets.  

HAC handsets attempt to overcome this problem through acoustic or inductive coupling.  Acoustic coupling uses the microphone in the hearing aid or cochlear implant to pick up and amplify sounds from the telephone’s receiver.  Inductive coupling turns off the microphone in the hearing aid to avoid amplifying unwanted ambient noise, instead using a telecoil to receive only signals generated by inductive coupling-capable telephones.  The FCC's "M" (for acoustic coupling) and "T" (for inductive coupling) ratings indicate whether a handset can be expected to function well with a hearing aid and are generally marked clearly on the handset packaging.  

The “M” and “T” ratings are on a scale from one to four, where four is the most compatible.  A phone is considered hearing-aid compatible under the FCC requirements if it is rated M3 or M4 for acoustic coupling and T3 or T4 for inductive coupling.  The FCC requires a specific number or percentage of the handsets sold to meet these M and T ratings.  

New Volume Control Requirements for Wireline and Wireless Phones

The NPRM proposes new standards for evaluating handset volume controls for both wireless and wireline phones.  While the technical details of the new standards are beyond the scope of this alert, they are based on the concept of “Conversational Gain,” which is based on “an absolute reference (starting point) of 64 dBSPL [decibel (dB) sound pressure level] through a speakerphone and 70 dBSPL through the handset so that any additional gain (volume) provided by the phone would be clear to the user.”  Id.  This starting point is the volume of a face-to-face conversation where the participants are 1 meter apart and listening with both ears.  Id.  Thus, 20 dB of Conversational Gain means that a consumer will hear a voice 20 dB louder than a face-to-face conversation at a distance of 1 meter.  In other words, Conversational Gain measures how loud a voice is compared to a typical face-to-face conversation.  Compliant handsets will have to provide at least 18 dB of gain.  If adopted, the requirement and would be phased-in over a two-year period.

Extension to VoIP Telephones

Current HAC standards apply to handsets used on the traditional PSTN.  The NPRM proposes extending the Part 68 requirement to “VoIP phones,” as required by the CVAA, including extending the inductive coupling requirement to wireline VoIP CPE.  

Exactly what this means, however, is not entirely clear.  For most residential VoIP services, consumers can plug any CPE into their cable modems and specialized “VoIP phones,” found in many business settings, already have sophisticated volume controls.  Thus, the proposal could effectively extend an inductive coupling requirement to all wireline handsets – a proposal that could prove expensive and difficult to implement.  The NPRM invites far-ranging comments on this proposal.

New Procedures for Establishing Technical Standards

Finally, in a nod to the technical nature of these issues and in response to the mandate of the CVAA, the NPRM proposes procedures for developing new standards in this area.  In particular, the FCC has proposed a “streamlined” process that will allow wireless and wireline handsets to be considered hearing aid compatible if found compliant with relevant technical standards developed through a public participation process and in consultation with interested consumer stakeholders designated by the FCC.  Designated stakeholders will be identified by the newly created “Disability Advisory Committee” (within the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau).  In dissent, Commissioner O’Rielly objects to this process as, in his view, it may “lead to an overly expansive interpretation of the statute, allow for inappropriate Commission intervention in the standards process, and permit excessive delegation to Commission staff, all of which I cannot support.”

Conclusion

Please contact us if you have any questions or would be interested in our assistance in filing comments responsive to the any of the issues raised in the FNPRM.  Opening comments are due 60 days after the NPRM is published in the federal register (which, as of Nov. 11, 2015, has not yet occurred).