On December 14, 2023, the FCC released the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) seeking comment on how the FCC can achieve its goal of a 100% hearing aid compatibility (“HAC”) benchmark for all handset models offered or imported into the United States. The item was adopted at the December Open Meeting.
Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on the following:
- 100% HAC Compatibility: The FCC tentatively concludes that requiring 100% of all handset models to be certified as hearing aid compatible is an achievable objective under the Communications Act. The FCC also tentatively concludes that a 100% compliance standard would encourage the use of currently available technology and would not impair the development of improved technology. The FCC seeks comment on these conclusions and on whether allowing Bluetooth coupling as an alternative or replacement for telecoil coupling is consistent with the Communications Act.
- Definition of Wireless HAC: The FCC seeks comment on the HAC Task Force’s proposed definition of hearing aid compatibility, that a “hearing aid-compatible handset model be defined as a handset model that: (1) has an internal means for compatibility; (2) meets established technical standards for hearing aid coupling or compatibility; and (3) is usable.”
- Expanding the Definition of HAC to Include Bluetooth Connectivity: The FCC proposes to require some handset models to connect to hearing aids through Bluetooth connectivity as an alternative to telecoil coupling on a limited basis as the Commission continues to study the issue. The FCC seeks comment on this proposal, how Bluetooth compares with telecoil, the cost to consumers, and the future of telecoil coupling. The FCC also seeks comment on alternative approaches to incorporating the Bluetooth connectivity requirement, specifically: (1) requiring a certain percentage (for example 15%) of handset models to meet a Bluetooth technical standard (either proprietary or non-proprietary) without incorporating any particular standard into the FCC’s rules; or (2) requiring a certain percentage of handset models to meet a (non-proprietary) Bluetooth standard that has been specifically incorporated into the FCC’s rules.
- Compliance Benchmarks: The FCC proposes that after the expiration of the relevant transition periods, 100% of handset models that manufacturers and service providers offer or import for use in the US must be certified as hearing aid compatible. They also must have at least two forms of coupling: (1) 100% of handset models would be required to meet an acoustic coupling requirement; and (2) 100% of handset models would be required to meet either a telecoil or a Bluetooth coupling requirement. Specifically, at least 85% of handset models would be required to meet a telecoil requirement and at least 15% of handset models would be required to meet a Bluetooth requirement. Any handset models not meeting a telecoil requirement would be required to meet a Bluetooth requirement, and any handset models not meeting a Bluetooth requirement would be required to meet a telecoil requirement. The FCC seeks comment on this proposal.
- Grandfathering Proposal to Reach 100% – The FCC proposes to allow manufacturers and service providers to continue to offer handset models that are already certified as hearing aid compatible under older technical standards after the end of the transition periods. These handset models would be grandfathered, and manufacturers and service providers could include these handset models as part of their 100% handset portfolios as long as the handset models are still being offered. Under the proposal, 100% of handset models would have to meet an acoustic coupling requirement and could meet the requirement with handset models certified under the 2019 ANSI Standard or with grandfathered handset models. They also would have to meet the Bluetooth or telecoil requirements outlined above. The FCC seeks comment on this proposal, whether to modify the grandfathering rule to include only a percentage of handsets, and alternative approaches to reach 100%, among other things.
- Alternative Approach to Reach 100% – The FCC alternatively proposes to require 100% of all handset models offered or imported into the US to meet the 2019 ANSI Standard (or any future ANSI standards), with 100% of handset models meeting the acoustic coupling portion of the 2019 ANSI standard, at least 85% of all handsets meeting the telecoil portion of the 2019 ANSI standard, and at least 15% meeting a Bluetooth component.
- Volume Control Requirement – The FCC seeks comment on how to incorporate the volume control requirement into either of the above proposals.
- Telecoil/Bluetooth Benchmarks – The FCC seeks comment on implementing its proposed 85/15% split between telecoil and Bluetooth connectivity under the two alternatives above.
- Transition Periods for 100% HAC: The FCC proposes to establish a 24-month transition period for manufacturers to meet the 100% benchmark, running from the effective date of an amended rule adopting the 100% requirement, and a 30-month transition period for nationwide service providers. The FCC proposes a 42-month transition period for non-nationwide service providers. The FCC seeks comment on this proposal, whether it is achievable, and if not, what alternative timeframes are appropriate, among other things.
- Handset Settings for HAC: The FCC proposes to require that after the expiration of the manufacturer transition period, all handset models must by default come out-of-the-box with acoustic coupling and volume control certification requirements fully turned on. The FCC also proposes to permit handset models to have a setting to turn on the telecoil or Bluetooth coupling function.
- Consumer Notification Provisions: The FCC seeks comment on whether to revise the HAC labeling and disclosure requirements to conform with the above. The FCC also proposes to permit manufacturers and service providers to provide the information required under the labeling rules to consumers through digital labeling technology (e.g. QR codes) on handset boxes rather than through a package insert or user manual.
- Website and Record Retention Requirements: The FCC proposes to require handset manufacturers and service providers to identify on their websites which handset models in their portfolios meet telecoil certification requirements. Manufacturers and service providers would be required to affirmatively state if a model does not meet the telecoil certification requirements and identify which Bluetooth connectivity standard the handset model meets instead. The FCC also seeks comment on streamlining the website and record retention requirements.
- Declining Reliance on the Accessibility Clearinghouse: The FCC proposes to decline the HAC Task Force recommendation that the Commission permit service providers to rely on information linked in the Commission’s Accessibility Clearinghouse as a legal safe harbor when making a determination of whether a handset model is hearing aid compatible for the purposes of meeting the applicable benchmarks. The FCC seeks comment on this proposal.
- Contact information for Consumers: The FCC proposes to require service providers to include on their websites a point of contact for hearing aid compatible handset models.
- Other Issues: The FCC seeks comment on a number of other issues, including sunsetting the de minimis exception for providers offering only a small number of handset models, a 90-day shot clock for waivers, renaming section 20.19, and promoting digital equity and inclusion.
On January 26, 2024, the FCC published in the Federal Register the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) seeking comment on how the FCC can achieve its goal of a 100% hearing aid compatibility (“HAC”) benchmark for all handset models offered or imported into the United States, thereby setting the comment and reply comment dates.
Comments are due on or before February 26, 2024.
Reply comments are due on or before March 11, 2024.
Comments on the Paperwork Reduction Act are due on or before March 26, 2024.
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