9 – Hearing Aid Compatibility Act

As of August 16, 1989, all landline telephones manufactured or imported for use in the U.S. have been required to be hearing aid-compatible. Cordless telephones manufactured or imported for use in the U.S. have also been required to be hearing aid compatible since August 16, 1991. Secure telephones are exempt, as are telephones used with public mobile services or private radio services.

A telephone is hearing aid-compatible if it provides internal means, i.e., without the use of external devices, for effective use with hearing aids that are designed to be compatible with telephones that meet the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) technical standard for hearing aid compatibility (the technical standard is codified at 47 C.F.R. § 68.316). This is usually accomplished by inserting a telecoil in telephones that detects, or is compatible with, a similar telecoil in the hearing aid, and thus allows the hearing aid to “couple” with the telephone through an electromagnetic field.

Regulations for HAC/VC (hearing aid compatible/volume control) are promulgated under the authority of the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988 (HAC Act), (codified at 47 U.S.C. § 610). The intent of the HAC Act is to ensure reasonable access to telephone service by persons with hearing disabilities.

Hearing Aid Compatibility and Volume Control FAQs

Hearing Aid Compatibility for Wireless Telephones

The Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988 (HAC Act) generally requires that the FCC ensure that telephones manufactured or imported for use in the United States after August 1989, and all “essential” telephones, are hearing aid-compatible. When Congress passed the Act in 1988, it specifically exempted “telephones used with public mobile services” (wireless telephones) from these requirements. To ensure that the HAC Act kept pace with the evolution of telecommunications, however, Congress granted the FCC a means to revoke or limit the exemption for wireless telephones. On August 14, 2003, the FCC determined that continuation of a complete exemption for wireless telephones would have an adverse effect on individuals with hearing disabilities, and that limiting the exemption was technologically feasible and in the public interest. Based upon these findings, the FCC established rules for the hearing aid compatibility of digital wireless phones.

What Makes a Phone Hearing Aid-Compatible?

Hearing aids operate in one of two modes — acoustic coupling or telecoil coupling. Hearing aids operating in acoustic coupling mode receive and amplify all sounds surrounding the user; both desired sounds, such as a telephone’s audio signal, as well as unwanted ambient noise. Hearing aids operating in telecoil coupling mode avoid unwanted ambient noise by turning off the microphone and receiving only signals from magnetic fields generated by telecoil-compatible telephones. In the U.S., about 60 percent of hearing aids contain telecoils, which generally are used by individuals with profound hearing loss.

A telecoil is a small, tightly-wrapped piece of wire inside the hearing aid that, when activated, picks up the voice signal from the electromagnetic field that leaks from compatible telephones. While the microphone on a hearing aid picks up all sounds, the telecoil will only pick up an electromagnetic signal from the telephone. Thus, users of telecoil-equipped hearing aids are able to communicate effectively over the telephone without feedback and without the amplification of unwanted background noise. Telecoils can generally fit in two styles of hearing aids: “In-The-Ear” and “Behind-The-Ear” aids. Most small hearing aids are not large enough to fit the telecoil. Many people report feedback (or squealing) when they place a telephone next to their hearing aid. When placed correctly, telecoils can eliminate this feedback because the hearing aid microphone is turned off and the hearing aid only amplifies the signal coming through the telecoil. Some hearing aid users may need to place the telephone slightly behind the ear rather than directly over the ear to obtain the clearest signal.

The ability to make wireless telephones compatible with hearing aids also depends in part on other technical and design choices made by carriers and manufacturers. For example, for technical reasons, it is easier to meet hearing aid compatibility standards on systems that use a Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) air interface (including Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel) than on systems that use a Global System for Mobile (GSM) (such as AT&T Mobility and T-Mobile) air interface. It is also easier to meet hearing aid compatibility standards in phones with clamshell (or “flip”) designs than in “candy bar” or other styles. Therefore, consumers may generally find more models that meet hearing aid compatibility standards available from CDMA carriers and in clamshell designs.

What Are the FCC’s Requirements for Hearing Aid Compatibility for Digital Wireless Telephones?

Analog wireless telephones usually do not cause interference with hearing aids. Digital wireless telephones, on the other hand, sometimes cause interference because of electromagnetic energy emitted by the telephone’s antenna, backlight or other components. Therefore, the FCC has adopted specific hearing aid compatibility rules for digital wireless telephones.

The standard for compatibility of digital wireless phones with hearing aids is set forth in American National Standard Institute (ANSI) standard C63.19. ANSI C63.19 contains two sets of standards: an “M” rating (originally a “U” rating) from one to four for reduced radio frequency (RF) interference to enable acoustic coupling with hearing aids that do not operate in telecoil mode, and a “T” rating (originally a “UT” rating) from one to four to enable inductive coupling with hearing aids operating in telecoil mode. A digital wireless handset is considered hearing aid-compatible for acoustic coupling if it meets an “M3” (or “U3”) rating under the ANSI standard. A digital wireless handset is considered hearing aid-compatible for inductive coupling if it meets a “T3” (or “U3T”) rating under the ANSI standard.

In addition to rating wireless phones, the ANSI standard also provides a methodology for rating hearing aids from M1 to M4, with M1 being the least immune to RF interference and M4 the most immune. To determine whether a particular digital wireless telephone is likely to interfere with a particular hearing aid, the immunity rating of the hearing aid is added to the rating of the telephone. A sum of four would indicate that the telephone is usable; a sum of five would indicate that the telephone would provide normal use; and a sum of six or greater would indicate that the telephone would provide excellent performance with that hearing aid.

Are Hearing Aid-Compatible Digital Wireless Phones Available?

To ensure that sufficient hearing aid-compatible digital wireless phones complying with the ANSI standard are available, the FCC set benchmark dates by which digital wireless handset manufacturers and service providers had to gradually increase the number of hearing aid-compatible digital wireless phones available to consumers. The currently applicable benchmarks are as follows:

For Acoustic Coupling

For Inductive Coupling

These numbers are minimum requirements, and manufacturers and service providers may offer more qualifying handsets if they choose. In addition, manufacturers are required to partially refresh their offerings of hearing aid-compatible phones each year, and service providers must offer a range of hearing aid-compatible phones with differing levels of functionality.

The FCC allows a “de minimis” exception to its requirements for handset manufacturers and wireless service providers offering a small number of hearing aid-compatible handsets. Under this exception:

Are There Labeling and Testing Requirements?

Packages containing hearing aid-compatible handsets must be explicitly labeled and must include detailed information in the package or product manual. Wireless service providers must offer a means for consumers to test hearing aid-compatible handsets in their owned or operated retail stores.

Some hearing aid manufacturers are voluntarily including information about hearing aid compatibility with their products. Wireless service providers are also offering similar information in their owned or operated retail stores and are training employees to help persons with hearing aids. This information and the package labeling required by the FCC help persons with hearing aids make fully-informed decisions about purchasing their hearing aid-compatible wireless phones.

After January 15, 2009, manufacturers and service providers are required to post information about their hearing aid-compatible handset offerings on their Websites.

Try Before You Buy

Try the wireless device with your hearing aid in the store before making your purchase. It’s best to try several models before buying to find the best match with your hearing aids. Visit a full service carrier store and ask to try devices that have been designated as “hearing aid-compatible.” Your cell phone’s RF emissions can change depending on your location. Be sure to fully evaluate your listening experience outside and during the return period. Read the fine print on the return policy and any early termination fees before signing up for any new cell phone or service.

Filing a Complaint with the FCC

If you have a problem using a hearing aid with a digital wireless phone that is supposed to be hearing aid-compatible, first try to resolve it with the equipment manufacturer or your wireless service provider. If you can’t resolve the issue directly, you can file a complaint with the FCC. There is no charge for filing a complaint. You can file your complaint using an online complaint form.

To file a complaint with the FCC’s Consumer Center:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554

What to Include in a Complaint

The best way to provide all the information the FCC needs to process a complaint is to fully complete the online complaint form. When opening the form, you will be asked a series of questions that will take you to the particular section of the form you need to complete. If you do not use the online complaint form, your complaint, at a minimum, should indicate:

For More Information

For information about hearing aid-compatible wireline telephones, see the FCC consumer fact sheet. For more information about FCC programs to promote access to telecommunications services for people with disabilities, visit its Disability Rights Office Website. Finally, for information about other telecommunications issues, visit the FCC’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau Website, or contact the FCC’s Consumer Center using the contact information provided for filing a complaint.

A list of all equipment manufacturers and service providers