There’s a petition on Change.org asking the FCC to maintain the telecoil requirement for mobile phones that earn the “hearing-aid-compatible” (HAC) rating. I just signed the petition, and everyone who has ever worn hearing aids, who has thought about wearing hearing aids, or who knows someone who wears hearing aids should plan on signing it, too.
The petition is sponsored by two prominent audiologists, Abram Bailey of HearingTracker.com and Juliette Sterkens, the National Hearing Loop Advocate for the Hearing Loss Association of America. It’s a response to Apple’s recent request that the Federal Communications Commission eliminate the requirement that any “HAC”-rated phone include telecoil functionality. A telecoil, or “t-coil,” is an inexpensive component that picks the signal off the phone line and transmits it directly into the hearing aid. For me, it was a lifesaver for many years.
When I used hearing aids to cope with severe hearing loss over more than a decade, I wouldn’t have been able to use the phone at all without t-coils. Because the t-coil enables the electronic signal on the phone line to bypass the hearing aid’s microphone and go directly to the hearing-aid receiver and into the ear, it eliminates much of the distortion that occurs when the hearing aid must re-amplify the the audio output from the phone. For me it improved audibility just enough to be able to use the phone.
Now, with Bluetooth and 2.4 gigahertz digital transmission technologies, other wireless solutions are available. Apple and others argue that these new wireless solutions are better than telecoils, which are based on seemingly ancient electromagnetic induction technology. Because T-coils require different components and transmission protocols from the newer Bluetooth and other wireless transmission technologies, proponents of the change argue that they take up valuable real estate and add cost and redundancy to phones that are already utilizing the newer technologies.
But there’s a problem with that argument. Telecoils are still less expensive than Bluetooth and proprietary transmission technologies. Even more important, they are an industry standard used with all landline phones and most mobile phones, as well as in publicly “looped” buildings, lecture halls, churches and synagogues, etc. The technology works and is cost effective. Eliminating the requirement that phones with hearing-aid-compatible ratings always be enabled for telecoils would mean that hearing aid users who depend on that technology would no longer be able to use many supposedly “hearing-aid-compatible” phones.
If Apple stopped making its iPhones compatible with telecoils, many iPhone users would be presented with an expensive choice. Either switch to a different phone that’s compatible with their t-coils, or switch to one of the limited choices of (very) expensive “Made for iPhone” hearing aids that have recently come on the market. For those users, the change in the FCC rules would not save money but could in fact cost them thousands of dollars more, just to get back the necessary capability–being able to hear the phone–that they had enjoyed before.
Industry standards are only useful when everyone adheres to them. If a big percentage of products does not adhere, then the standard is no longer a standard, new players in the market decide not to offer the standard technology, and over time the overall benefit decreases.
Apple has a long history of not opting into industry standards. The operating system for Apple’s computers was never compatible with the Windows operating system, which was an industry standard with something like 90 percent of the market share for personal computers. Apple was successful because it provided great computers that provided high levels of functionality, ease of use, and classy design to users willing to pay a higher price than they’d have to pay for very comparable industry-standard computers.
Similarly, Apple is free to ignore the industry standard for hearing aid compatibility. In fact, for a long time, iPhones did not work that well with hearing aids. But now they do, and Apple has worked hard to develop a good reputation for trying to make its phones accessible to people with all kinds of challenges.
Eliminating t-coil compatibility from its phones now, however, would contradict Apple’s public commitment to overall accessibility. So Apple is asking the FCC to say that its phones can be rated “hearing-aid-compatible” even if it ignores the t-coil standard. That just doesn’t sit right with me and shouldn’t with anyone who has ever enjoyed the simple and cost-effective advantages of t-coil technology.
Maybe in a few years the promising advances of Bluetooth and other wireless digital technologies will be so baked into future generations of hearing aids that they become the same kind of virtual standards that telecoils are today. But now isn’t the time to pull the plug on the old reliable t-coil.