The Commission adopted a Fourth Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to modernize the FCC’s Hearing Aid Compatibility (“HAC”) rules.  In the Report and Order, the Commission adopts an expanded scope of HAC requirements (outlined below) to ensure that emerging voice technologies are subject to the HAC requirements, without regard to outdated scope restrictions or regulatory service classifications. Additionally, the NPRM seeks to develop a record on an innovative and groundbreaking proposal, advanced collaboratively by industry and consumer groups, to replace the current fractional regime with the staged adoption of a system under which all covered wireless handsets will be hearing aid compatible.

Report & Order

The Fourth Report and Order makes “common sense updates” to ensure that the HAC rules cover emerging modes of voice communications access, specifically, handsets that are used with any terrestrial mobile service that enables two-way real-time voice communications among members of the public or a substantial portion of the public, including through the use of pre-installed software applications, including:

  • Both, current and emerging, Interconnected and non-interconnected VoIP services provided through pre-installed software applications regardless of whether the calling functionality provides interconnection to the public switched telephone network;
  • Voice communications service over Wi-Fi that does not utilize an in-network switching facility that enables reuse of frequencies and seamless hand-off

Notably, the rules do not, at this time, extend beyond terrestrial services providing for voice communications among the public or a substantial portion of the public, and accordingly do not cover services not generally available to the public, including public safety and private enterprise networks, or non-terrestrial networks like MSS. Additionally, HAC requirements will not apply to voice applications added by consumers after their purchase of the device.

Compliance with these obligations will be required, however, only to the extent the handsets operate in frequency bands covered by Commission-approved standards for hearing aid compatibility.  The existing deployment benchmarks for newly covered air interfaces – in Section 20.19 of the Commission’s rules –  will apply to newly covered handsets and air interfaces as of January 1, 2018 (for manufacturers and Tier I carriers), with an additional period until April 1, 2018 for handsets offered by non-Tier I service providers.

NPRM

The NPRM proposes to adopt, and seeks comment on, “a landmark consensus approach developed cooperatively by consumer advocates and industry trade associations” that will require that 100% of all new wireless handset models are hearing aid compatible over time. This landmark consensus approach adopts the general approach outlined in the Joint Consensus Proposal filed by CCA, TIA, CTIA, as well as the Hearing Loss Association of America, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the National Association of the Deaf.

Joint Consensus Proposal, Generally

The Proposal provides that within two years of the effective date of the adoption of the new benchmark rules, 66% of wireless handset models offered to consumers should be compliant with the FCC’s M rating (acoustic coupling radio frequency interference) and T rating (inductive coupling) requirements.  Within five years of the effective date, 85% of wireless handset models offered to consumers should be compliant with the M and T ratings.  The Proposal provides that  “the Commission should commit to pursue that 100% of wireless handsets offered to consumers should be compliant with [the M and T rating requirements] within eight years” subject to a Commission determination within seven years of the effective date that reaching this 100% goal is “achievable”.

The Commission seeks comment on the following:

  • The merits of the Joint Consensus Proposal, both with respect to its overall effectiveness in fulfilling Congress’s intent to ensure access to telephones for people with hearing loss and more specifically with respect the its various components. The NPRM also seeks comment on potential alternatives to the Joint Consensus Proposal.
  • The time-frames that the proposal describes (outlined above).
    • The proposal provides additional compliance periods for Tier I and Non-Tier I carriers of six months and eighteen months, respectively.
    • With respect to the Proposal’s approach of 100% compatibility within 8 years, whether a longer or shorter transition period be more appropriate and, if so, why?
    • Whether any exceptions be preserved or adopted in the event the Commission adopts a 100% compatibility requirement, and how such exceptions are consistent with and warranted under Section 710’s requirements
  • Proposed exceptions to the new benchmarks:
    • Proposal recommends that the existing de minimis exception to the benchmarks should continue to apply for manufacturers and carriers that offer three or fewer handset models in an air interface and that the rule should further provide that manufacturers and carriers that offer four or five digital wireless handset models in an air interface should ensure that at least two of those handsets models are compliant.
  • Proposed process for determining achievability, specifically the Joint Proposal provides for the Commission to create a stakeholder task force in year four, with the goal of issue a report to the Commission within two years from that time on the achievability.
    • Specifically, the Commission seeks comment on how it should determine achievability, including the appropriate substantive definition, standard, or framework to govern the Commission’s determination.
  • The appropriate treatment of legacy handset models.
  • Treatment of reporting, disclosure, labeling, benchmark requirements
    • If the Commission decides to ultimately transition to a 100% compatibility regime, it proposes to ease or eliminate the reporting, disclosure, labeling, benchmark and other requirements imposed under the current rules. The NPRM seeks comment on the extent to which these requirements are unnecessary or unwarranted and on the costs and benefits of easing such requirements as they relate to consumers, manufacturers, and service providers. With respect to the benchmark requirements, the Commission also asks whether benchmarks will remain necessary after a transition to 100% compliance.

Comments due January 14, 2016
Reply Comments due January 29, 2016

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