FCC Proposes Updated Hearing Aid Compatibility Standard for Wireless Handsets

At its January 30 Open Meeting, the FCC approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) that would require wireless handset manufacturers to comply with the 2019 version of the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”) technical standard for hearing aid compatibility. With the proposed changes, wireless handset manufacturers and wireless service providers, including resellers, would be required to offer hearing aid compatible (“HAC”) handsets designed to comply with the new standard as part of their product portfolio. Comments on the NPRM will be due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register and replies will be due 45 days after publication, which has not yet occurred.

Currently, section 20.19 of the FCC’s rules requires handset manufacturers and service providers to offer a minimum percentage of handsets, for each air interface, from their overall wireless handset product portfolio that are HAC. This section also establishes ANSI C63.19 (currently it lists the 2011 version) as the specific technical standard to be used for measuring compatibility between wireless handsets and hearing aids. Wireless handsets submitted for FCC certification must demonstrate they are designed to this standard and have a hearing aid compatibility rating of least M3 regarding interference and T3 for inductive coupling. Manufacturers and service providers are required to ensure that 66% of their handsets are HAC but this benchmark is set to increase to 85% beginning on October 21, 2021 and April 4, 2022 for manufacturers and service providers, respectively. In 2017, the FCC also adopted a requirement that handsets be equipped with volume control that produces sound levels suitable for persons with hearing loss (including persons with and without hearing aids),” effective on March 1, 2021. Handset manufacturers are required to submit Form 655 reports by July 15 each year regarding their compliance with these requirements and service providers are required to submit Form 855 certifications of compliance each year by January 15, although the NPRM proposes to push those deadlines to July 31 and January 31 respectively.

The FCC now proposes to amend its rules to require manufacturers and service providers to offer devices that comply with the newest (2019) version of the C63.19 standard after a two-year transition period that would begin after an order adopting the 2019 standard is published in the Federal Register. The 2019 standard provides a revised technical approach for determining hearing aid compatibility and incorporates the volume control standard used for wireline phones, ANSI/TIA-5050, as a component of the requirements a handset must satisfy to be considered HAC. In addition, the new standard eliminates the M/T rating system and covers handsets operating in the 614 MHz to 6 GHz as opposed to the 698 MHz to 6 GHz range of the current standard. The NPRM, if adopted, would extend the effective date of the volume control requirement to be consistent the implementation date of the new standard.

Under the proposed rules, manufacturers and service providers would be able to count handsets previously certified under the 2011 standard towards satisfying the HAC benchmarks. During the transition period, manufacturers would able to test new handsets for certification using either the 2011 or the 2019 standard. The proposal also considers simplifying rules around the labeling of HAC packaging materials to allow consumers to have more easily understandable information. Proposed changes would give manufacturers and service providers flexibility to disclose information to consumers through clear and effective means (e.g., packaging materials, manuals) about things like whether a handset is HAC, the air interfaces on the handset that are not HAC, and the standard to which the handset complies. Certified handsets that have air interfaces that are HAC must include exact warning language proposed by the FCC. Finally, handsets compliant with the 2019 standard would be required to display information on the packaging material as well as in the manual (or an insert) about the amplification capabilities.

Further, in the NPRM, the FCC seeks comment about the level of handset redesign that would be required to meet the new standard. The FCC also seeks comment about what impact the proposed technical standard and transition period would have on the plan to consider whether a requirement for a 100% HAC handsets is feasible in 2024. In 2016, the FCC adopted a joint agreement from three trade associations and three disability advocacy groups for gradual increases in the HAC benchmarks with a goal of 100% handset compliance by 2024. An aspect of that joint agreement was to initiate an external stakeholder task force that would assess the state of the marketplace and provide data to inform the FCC’s decision. On February 6, the signatories to the joint agreement filed an update informing the FCC about the selection of an administrator and the official launch of the task force. Therefore, it is likely this group’s efforts and timeline will influence the FCC’s consideration of the proposed rules.

Comments on the NPRM will be due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register and replies will be due 45 days after publication, which has not yet occurred.