At the Federal Communication Commission’s (Commission’s) monthly meeting on October 24, 2017, the Commissioners approved a Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration (Order) updating Commission rules regarding hearing aid compatibility (HAC). Specifically, the Order adopts a new wireline HAC volume control standard, applies the wireline HAC standards to handsets used for advanced communications services (ACS) like interconnected and non-interconnected VoIP, and adopts a volume control requirement for wireless handsets. The wireless device volume control requirement is the most controversial and drew dissents from both of the Chairman’s fellow Republicans, despite the three year runway for compliance.

First, the Order updates volume control technical standards for wireline telephones in section 68.317 of the Commission’s rules. These technical standards are developed and amended by the TR-41 Committee, currently affiliated with the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). The Commission, responding to a petition filed by TIA, proposed to update the Part 68 wireline volume control rules to incorporate a revised standard developed by the TR-41 Committee, referred to in the Order as the 2012 Wireline Volume Control Standard. All commenters addressing this issue support this adoption. Based on this support and the record evidence, the Commission found the revised standard improves the measurement of volume amplification over the previous standard, which contributed to discrepancies between the claimed and actual amplification being provided.

Specifically, the revised standard enhances the measurement of volume amplification in two ways: by using a Head and Torso Simulator, which considers the lack of seal between a telephone receiver and the ears of users in real-life settings, instead of measuring the volume received by the user with an IEC-318 coupler, which is designed to form a seal with the telephone handset; and by using a “conversation gain,” where gain is measured relative to an absolute benchmark based on the sound of face-to-face conversation at a distance of one meter, instead of measuring loudness in terms of Receive Objective Loudness Rating, where gain is measured relative to each phone’s normal unamplified sound level. Furthermore, the Order requires telephones manufactured or imported for the use in the U.S. to comply with the new standard two years after the Order’s effective date. Additionally, existing inventory and installed base of telephones that comply with current rules are approved to remain in place until retired.

Second, the Order amends the Commission’s rules to extend the HAC requirements for wireline telephones to ACS, which includes interconnected and non-interconnected VoIP services and equipment. The Order specifies VoIP telephones and other wireline equipment collectively termed “ACS telephonic CPE” must comply with the HAC requirements for wireline telephones. These requirements include: (1) having the equipment tested for HAC compliance; (2) registering the equipment with the ACTA terminal equipment database; and (3) providing appropriate labels regarding HAC compliance.

Third, following other Commission explorations into the need for a wireless volume control rule to address the needs of people with hearing loss, the Order finds a wireless phone volume control requirement that specifies certain levels of amplification as an element of HAC is needed and just as necessary as a corresponding wireline provision, especially given the country’s increasing reliance on wireless phones. Therefore, the Order requires all wireless handsets newly certified as hearing aid compatible to include volume control suitable for consumers with hearing loss. Manufacturers and services providers must comply with this stipulation within three years.

Finally, the Order eliminates the 2007 version of ANSI C63.19 (2007 Wireless RF Interference/Inductive Coupling Standard), as a choice for measuring and rating the HAC compliance of wireless handsets and requires the use of an updated version.

The Order was approved over the partial dissents of Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly, who both questioned the need to adopt a requirement now when the requirement will not be effective for three years. Commissioner Carr pointed out that the applicable technical standard is still being developed and Commissioner O’Rielly more broadly opposed the Commission adopting standards in its rules.