The US Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Wireless Telecommunications Bureau has announced the extension of a comment period on a review of its regulations on a type of medical device now used by millions of Americans: hearing aids.
The extension is the second in the last two months, this time owing to the FCC's understanding that the deadline fell on the same day as a critical filing deadline for all handset manufacturers (Form 655).
Currently, FCC regulations-as dictated by the 1998 Hearing Aid Compatibility Act-state that all telephones must be hearing aid-compatible and "available to all consumers."
While the rules originally related exclusively to wired headsets, and specifically exempted wireless ones, FCC explained on its website that since 2003, Congress and it have both come to the conclusion that the exemption "would have an adverse effect on individuals with hearing disabilities." The change was based in part on technological advancements that allowed the newer devices to include hearing aid-compatible technology without significantly affecting the device's weight or cost.
The rules are part of a group of relatively few in the US that pertain directly to medical devices, even fewer of which that are not related to mobility.
The problem is also uniquely related to the features of the medical device-not the hearing condition. Certain phones are able to "couple" to hearing aids, eliminating the device's need to amplify all sounds around the user, which can improve the quality of sound by significantly reducing ambient noise which otherwise makes conversations difficult.
Manufacturers must also assess the phone's immunity to radiofrequency interference, which can also affect the usability of the device. A standard put forth by the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) provides a rating scale manufacturers can use, ranging from an M1 rating for the least-immune devices to M4 for the most immune.
In recent years, FCC has moved to require that all large manufacturers offer several models of wireless models to its hearing-impaired consumers. These requirements vary depending on the size of the manufacturer and the type of hearing aid device being coupled with the phone.
Call for Industry Comment
In November 2012, FCC called on the telecommunications industry to provide it with comment regarding whether the current rules have "succeeded in making hearing aid-compatible phones available to consumers with a full range of different feature sets, and whether the rules appropriately account for the challenges facing smaller service providers."
With this in mind, FCC now wants to know what the telecommunications industry thinks about a range of questions:
- Do the Commission's rules continue to ensure that a full range of hearing aid-compatible handsets is available to all consumers?
- Have developments in the marketplace posed new challenges, or relieved pre-existing challenges, to smaller providers?
- Are consumers adequately informed about the capabilities of the new handsets and their functionality with hearing aids and cochlear implants?
- Are consumers informed about the functioning of handsets that have a separate menu-driven mode for operation with telecoils, and that activating this mode may affect the phone's acoustic coupling performance?
- Do the existing technical standards adequately and completely measure the new handsets' hearing aid compatibility?
- With the introduction of devices in new sizes and form factors, is it sufficiently clear whether a device is "typically held to the ear in any of its ordinary uses" and therefore covered under the hearing aid compatibility rules?
- Is it still necessary and appropriate to allow phones operating over GSM at 1900 MHz to achieve an M3 rating by means of a user-controlled power reduction?
Comments must be submitted to FCC on or before 22 January 2013.