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April 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 4
Regulation Watch

Can You Hear Me Now? Hearing Aid Compatibility and VoIP

The FCC (News - Alert) is considering revising its hearing aid compatibility rules to include wireless VoIP and open platform services. These rules could have a significant impact on a variety of VoIP services and equipment.

Under current Commission rules, manufacturers and service providers are required to meet the Commission’s hearing aid compatibility standards to the extent that handsets are associated with digital cellular networks that “offer real-time, two-way switched voice or data service that is interconnected with the public switched network and utilize an in-network switching facility that enables the provider to reuse frequencies and accomplish seamless hand-offs of subscriber calls.” The FCC is reviewing comments in response to its own proposal to expand its hearing aid compatibility rules to VoIP applications provided over wireless technologies such as WiFi (News - Alert), WiMAX and other emerging technologies. Unlike other FCC actions to date, the proposed rules could apply to both interconnected and non-interconnected VoIP applications.

The Commission also seeks comment on whether to apply hearing aid compatibility rules to devices and applications that utilize “open platform” networks (i.e. Band C Block spectrum). Currently, the FCC’s rules impose hearing aid compatibility obligations only on manufacturers and providers of Broadband Personal Communications Services (PCS), Cellular Radiotelephone Service (cellular), and Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) Services in the 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands. The FCC seeks comment on the applicability of their hearing aid compatibility rules to “independent retailers and other third parties in the context of ‘open platform’ networks.”

In addition, the FCC is asking, “what constitutes a telephone in the context of new devices that more closely resemble mobile computers but have voice communications capabilities?” This question is clearly aimed at VoIP applications that run on laptops or other devices that utilize WiFi or other wireless connectivity. In true form, the Commission is seeking broad comment on what additional regulatory obligations may be appropriate to address the issues raised by emerging wireless technologies, taking into account the statutory goal to promote equal access to communications equipment and services for consumers with hearing loss as well as economic, technological, and legal constraints.

Should the FCC apply these rules to VoIP and open access services, manufacturers will largely bear the burden of developing and producing compatible devices. However, VoIP and other covered providers will remain liable should equipment manufacturers be unable to meet the FCC’s standards within the phase-in deadlines. VoIP providers, systems integrators and manufacturers are advised to keep a close eye on the docket. IT

William B. Wilhelm (News - Alert) is a partner in the law firm of Bingham McCutchen LLP ( The preceding represents the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Bingham McCutchen LLP or its clients.

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