Apple urges FCC to spike rules for universal compliance with hearing aids

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is urging the FCC not to adopt rules that would require universal compatibility between hearing aids and wireless devices and technologies.

The HAC Act was established in 1988 and requires the FCC to ensure that all phones manufactured or imported for use in the U.S. are compatible with hearing aids. The FCC essentially broadened the Act in 2003 to establish rules for the hearing aid compatibility of mobile phones.

The FCC then in November moved to further broaden rules for hearing aid compatibility, proposing rules that would require 100 percent of all consumer wireless devices and technologies are covered, including next-generation services such as Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE. The agency is seeking comment "on a landmark consensus plan that would, for the first time, establish a consensus path to ensure that all wireless handsets are accessible to and usable by people who use hearing aid devices and cochlear implants."

However, this week Apple said that while the iPhone complies with FCC's current HAC rules, the company's own hearing aid platform -- dubbed Made for iPhone, or MFi -- should be recognized as an alternative for hearing aid compatibility compliance. MFi uses Bluetooth low energy to connect hearing aids to handsets, Apple explained in its FCC filing on the topic, which supports not only voice calls but enables users to access audio in apps such as FaceTime, VoiceOver, Siri and multimedia and navigation offerings.

The platform also enables users to switch between preset configurations for different environments, Apple continued, and to use the phone itself as an assistive listening device, extending the range of hearing aids without requiring third-party equipment.

"Recognizing approaches such as the MFi hearing aid platform as compliant under the FCC's HAC rules will accelerate adoption, increase scale, and reduce cost of new technologies that can improve accessibility compared with today's HAC-compliant technologies," Apple wrote, "thereby providing further incentive for future third party development. Doing so will also increase consumer awareness of -- and demand for -- accessibility solutions based on these platforms."

The iPhone maker also lobbied the FCC not to adopt blanket rules that would require universal compatibility with hearing aids. Such a move would not only stifle innovation by mandating "the lowest common denominator subset of coupling technologies that are available for existing hearing aids," Apple said, it would also be impractical in a market where new devices, technologies and services are constantly coming to market.

"For example, while Apple anticipates the number of MFi-compatible hearing aids will continue to grow, Apple's MFi platform is unlikely to ever be compatible with all hearing aids in existence, if only because hearing aid manufacturers are likely to continue offering hearing aids with varying feature sets, including models that do not have support for wireless digital connections," according to the filing. "But 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."

Apple has experienced controversy over HAC rules in the past: Among other issues, it was granted a contested exemption from hearing-aid mandates in 2007, and it was fined $6,000 for not filing a required compatibility status report in 2009.

For more:
- see this FCC filing
- see this FCC press release (PDF)

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