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To an outsider, the process of regulatory law can appear to be little more than technocratic decision-making. However, those seemingly arcane decisions often reflect a collaborative effort among diverse stakeholders to work together to reach consensus. Such an effort occurred today when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a proposal to strengthen accessibility to mobile devices for Americans with hearing loss who rely on hearing aids.
While many of us take for granted our ability to use our wireless phones without issue, customers who rely on hearing aids require handsets that manage the interference that can occur between the phone speaker and the hearing aid microphone. The FCC website has more technical details on how this works, but the important point is that FCC rules require that handset makers and wireless carriers offer a minimum number of hearing-aid-compatible (HAC) devices.
Current rules only require carriers like Verizon to ensure that half of their handsets are HAC devices. However, today’s action proposes a rule change that would provide for a multi-stage, multi-year process to increase HAC compliance.
While Verizon has historically exceeded the existing regulatory requirements for our devices, we agreed that the FCC’s accessibility rules haven’t kept pace with developments in the wireless industry. The ubiquitous use of phones and smartphones by hard of hearing consumers has led to demand for better HAC options in the marketplace. So we worked with hearing loss advocates, other providers and device manufacturers to develop a consensus plan that provides industry the flexibility it needs to continue to innovate without losing focus of the very real needs of the hard of hearing community. The timelines agreed upon offer a clear route to meeting the ultimate goal of 100% HAC handset availability, set by the Commission, advocates and providers. The benchmarks outlined by this consensus plan were developed through a series of conversations with interested parties all focused on the goal of providing more choices to Americans with hearing loss.
Working together with our friends in the disability community to find common ground is a proven way to develop smart policies and to do business. Over the years we have partnered with the disability community to develop good policy and to help us improve the way we meet our customers’ needs. On the policy front, we’ve relied on these partnerships to find reasonable solutions to vexing technical issues like text-to-911, which provides a safe alternative to contacting emergency services when voice is not an option, and efforts to improve wireless indoor location accuracy that helps ensure that people who are deaf can be located in densely populated areas. On the business side, we work with the disability community to make sure new products and services are accessible before launch, discuss service plan changes and conduct regular meetings to share ideas and weigh solutions to accessibility concerns.
So today’s action by the FCC to address hearing aid compatibility issues is as much a triumph of collaboration, highlighting the value of partnerships as it is a rulemaking to enhance accessibility.