Apple tightens the knot on the hard-of-hearing. It’s innovative!

iphone 2In November of last year, the FCC issued a Public Notice that they were going to review the existing rules for wireless hearing aid compatibility. They also solicited comments on hearing aid compatibility and accessibility for wireless phone handsets.

Hearing loss and wireless tech organizations respond

In short order, a consortium of hearing-loss and wireless industry organizations, led by HLAA, submitted a consensus letter to the FCC. Signatories included: Competitive Carriers Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association®, the Hearing Loss Association of America, the National Association of the Deaf, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the Telecommunications Industry Association.
The letter recommended that: “Within five years of the effective date of the new rules adopted, 85% of wireless handsets offered to consumers should be compliant with Sections 20.19(b)(1) and (b)(2).” Those (existing) standards are detailed and quantitative, but FCC’s website offers a simplified description: telephones are hearing-aid compatible if they “have an internal feature that works with telecoil or T-coil hearing aids.”

A shot across the bow….by Apple

Things got quiet for awhile. Then, at the end of January, Apple submitted comments to the FCC, proposing that the iPhone be exempted from the t-coil requirement.

Apple’s proposed alternative is its proprietary Bluetooth connection protocol that links MFi (Made For iPhone) hearing aids to the iPhone. Although several manufacturers have acquired licenses to use Apple’s Bluetooth pairing in their hearing aids, the link only works between iPhones and MFi hearing aids. And there is no hint in Apple’s FCC letter that that is going to change any time soon.

Apple’s arguments include the following:

1. Bluetooth is better! Apple’s proprietary Bluetooth pairing “supports not only voice call output, but also lets individuals with MFi hearing aids access audio from FaceTime, VoiceOver, Siri (Apple’s intelligent personal assistant), turn-by-turn navigation, stereo music and movies, and output from third party apps, including games, audiobooks, and educational programs.” (Actually, you don’t need BT to do any of those things…I use my iPhone, $40 neckloop and the telecoils in my hearing aids. Not rocket/BT science. Sorry, Apple).

2. It’s not that expensive! Although there are a few MFi aids on the market, a recent visit to Costco revealed a price of $1799.99 for a pair of Kirkland’s version, manufactured by ReSound. The Hearing Instrument Specialist told me that those aids do NOT include t-coils as an option. So, the train is pulling away from the station already: Costco is selling MFi aids are not “compatible,” by FCC’s standards.

3. This is good for innovation! As Apple points out in their letter, “the FCC has not in the past, and should not now, require that manufacturers ubiquitously implement coupling technologies that can function with every hearing aid. To do so would undermine companies’ ability to attract consumers with hearing loss by differentiating their products in the marketplace, and would severely constrain innovation.” (Section III.B) Innovation…at what cost?

4. We need new compatibility standards (that our new products can pass)! Apple suggests adopting a new qualitative testing protocol – “Method for the subjective assessment of intermediate quality level of audio systems,” which uses people (with normal hearing) to rate audio quality (Section 4.1.1.).

So, where does that leave the consumer?

Nick Hunn, Chair of Bluetooth’s Hearing Aid Working Group, puts it this way: “This might be good for Apple, but it’s an awful decision for everyone else.”

One reason is that people generally get new mobile phones far more often than we switch hearing aids. Again, Hunn: “Apple actually encourages its users to upgrade their phones every year through its iPhone upgrade program, and most users upgrade at least once every 18 months. But hearing-aid users typically change their hearing aids no more than once every five years.” So if you have Apple’s MFi hearing aids, and decide to switch mobile phone brands, it might severely constrain innovation.

Not so fast!

Hunn’s primary argument is that Apple is jumping the gun by asking FCC to approve their proprietary system. Hunn’s Bluetooth Working Group is developing a set of specifications that they anticipate “will be widely used and be interoperable for a variety of speech and music applications. Our aim is to make it generic so that all manufacturers will want to use it. It should add no cost to a phone, tablet or TV which already uses a Bluetooth chip, so we’re hoping it will become the standard for the next 10 – 15 years of Bluetooth audio,” Hunn points out.

As far as the timing goes, Hunn estimates that “We should have the spec complete sometime next year – it takes time to do all of the interoperability testing to make sure it works properly before we release it. Hearing loss is too important to make rushed decisions.”

FCC: Ball’s in Your Court

Apple’s letter to the FCC requesting an exemption from the t-coil compatibility standard reads like a good move for innovation and accessibility. But it’s not that straightforward. Apple’s decision to “go it alone” is, according to Hunn, “one that stands to disrupt the hearing-aid experience for millions – and fragment the hearing-aid business altogether.”

Perhaps the FCC should take a few deep breaths and see what the Bluetooth Working Group comes up with. In practical, market terms, a proprietary solution to improving accessibility might be, in this case, an oxymoron.

(adapted from a post first published on Hearing Health and Technology Matters’ website)

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