At its November 19, 2015, Open Meeting, the FCC adopted orders relating to the hearing aid compatibility (HAC) of wireless phones and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). The orders are aimed at ensuring greater access to wireless communications services and handset devices for the tens of millions of Americans with hearing loss and strengthening the existing Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system.
Hearing Aid Compatibility
The Hearing Aid Compatibility Act requires the FCC to ensure all wireline telephones manufactured or imported for use in the United States and all “essential” telephones, such as public phones, emergency phones and workplace phones are hearing aid-compatible. Beginning in 2003, the FCC established rules for the hearing aid compatibility of digital wireless phones as well.
Currently, the FCC’s HAC rules are limited to handsets that used traditional cellular networks. Recognizing that wireless voice communications increasingly operate via alternative technologies, the Fourth Report and Order will expand those rules to cover IP-based communications services like Wi-Fi Calling and Voice-over-LTE. The new rules also require that future technologies comply with current and future hearing aid compatibility rules, encouraging manufacturers to consider hearing aid compatibility at the earliest stages of the product design process. The rules will ensure that consumers with hearing loss are not always trying to catch up to technology and will provide the industry with additional regulatory certainty.
The FCC also adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on a consensus plan submitted by consumer advocates and the wireless industry that would establish a path toward ensuring that all wireless handsets are accessible to and usable by people who use hearing aid devices and cochlear implants. While the current HAC rules require service providers and handset manufacturers to ensure that a specified fraction or number of their offerings are hearing aid compliant, the proposal would give consumers with hearing loss the same range of device choices available to any other consumer while at the same time preserving industry’s ability to innovate.
More information on the FCC’s HAC requirements is available here.
Wireless Emergency Alerts
Launched three years ago, WEA is a public safety system that allows customers who own certain wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area (such as evacuation orders or shelter–in-place orders due to severe weather, a terrorist threat or chemical spill.) Participation by wireless carriers is voluntary.
Based on its experience over the last three years, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking aimed at improving WEA message content and ensuring that the messages reach only those people for whom an alert is relevant. The FCC also proposed to establish a WEA testing program. The rulemaking includes proposals to:
- Increase the maximum length of WEA messages (from 90 to 360 characters) in order to convey more information;
- Enable alerts to contain embedded phone numbers and URLs to improve message quality and accessibility;
- Create a new class of WEA alerts (“Emergency Government Information”) as a means of sending action-oriented public safety advisories (such as “boil water” messages or information on shelter locations during weather emergencies) to communities;
- Require participating wireless providers to deliver the alerts to more granular geographic areas; and
- Make it easier for state and local authorities to test WEA service and train personnel.
The FCC is also seeking comment on a variety of other potential improvements, including the technical feasibility of implementing multilingual and multimedia alerting.
More information on Wireless Emergency Alerts is available here.