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FCC Plans First-Ever New Rules for VoIP Handsets & Hearing Aid Compatibility

November 13, 2015

By , Contributing Writer

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC (News - Alert)) did something that was, for the organization, a first. It issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would examine several currently in-place rules and make some updates as need be. That's no first, but the target of that rulemaking is: the manufacturers of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) handsets.

The new notice looks to manufacturers that deal particularly with devices that are hearing aid compatible (HAC), and plans to address two key points: one, an update to the requirements related to volume control, and two, to make the current rules apply to those handsets used in VoIP systems. Concern over hearing aids, and how well such things work with telephones, goes back as far as 1988, when Congress brought in section 710 of the Communications Act requiring hearing aid compatibility. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act passed in 2010 stepped things up to put section 710 to use in “advanced communications services” like VoIP.

With the rule changes, meanwhile, the FCC' focuses on what's called “conversational gain,” based on a starting point of 64 decibel sound pressure level (dBSPL). The rules call for the communication to be sufficiently loud to generate that 64 dBSPL through a speakerphone, or 70 dBSPL through a handset, such that any extra volume would be clear  to those using the device.

Sounds reasonable enough, but the actual execution may be tougher than expected. Residential VoIP users already reportedly enjoy the ability to plug a piece of customer premises equipment (CPE) into cable modems and other handsets and already get access to volume controls that should handle the issue altogether. A new FCC rule might make things difficult by requiring inductive coupling, which would be both complex and expensive, while the main issue is already addressed by what's on hand.

On the one hand, we all want people with hearing aids to be able to hear the conversation on the other end of the line, whether that line is a straight phone line or a VoIP connection. However, is that really a concern to begin with? We know that current VoIP handsets generally come with volume controls; would we want to impose a rule on VoIP handset makers that might make it more difficult and expensive to produce goods for the market? That's a potential job-killer, and worse, a job-killer that may not have that much impact. Perhaps a better way would be to simply codify the requirement that volume control be in place and worthwhile; most handset makers are already doing this, so the burden is minimal.

Making new rules is something that should never be done lightly, as the fallout from such can be as disastrous as it is unforeseen. Even with noble purposes, rule changes must be carefully considered, and this potential modification is no exception. 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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