aNewDomain commentary — It’s no secret that tech giants like Apple and Samsung are keying in on the hearing-aid market. Samsung’s efforts to build what it calls a “low-power Bluetooth hearing aid” are well documented in FCC filings and other public documents.
What you may not have heard is that Apple is currently petitioning the FCC to remove the requirement to include telecoils in Apple iPhones.
This is a selfish move — and a terrible idea.
It’s true that Apple has developed its own proprietary version of Bluetooth that can be used in hearing aids. And it’s true also that removing telecoils from its smartphones would save it space and money, which would be great for Apple.
But letting Apple remove telecoils from iPhones and rely instead on proprietary fixes is bad for everyone else, especially the millions of hearing-impaired persons who rely on hearing aid technology to experience the world around them.
Telecoils have served hearing-aid users well over the last some 40 years. There’s a reason why so much legislation requires that telecoils are included in all modern hearing aids and new smartphones, too.
But telecoil tech is now long in the tooth, and the limitations of its 1970s-era capabilities are becoming all too apparent. Take frequency response. That’s just one area where it no longer cuts muster. Telecoil tech is still adequate for speech, sure, but it’s miserable music. And there’s the antenna problem: Telecoils need them, but try fitting these antennaes into modern phones and hearing aids. Talk about an engineering challenge.
The Bluetooth SIG and EHIMA, the association representing hearing-aid manufacturers, are well aware of these issues and already are attacking the problem. They have been working together on a new version of the Bluetooth specification that will replace telecoils. This new standard will at once provide better audio quality and be simpler and more cost effective to install in buildings.
Apple appears impatient to remove telecoils from its iPhone design. Its impatience is understandable. But the decision to go it alone with a proprietary standard is a selfish one. It’s one that stands to disrupt the hearing-aid experience for millions — and fragment the hearing-aid business altogether.
If Apple removes this feature, hearing-impaired users will be forced to either switch phone makers or buy new hearing aids to get the same experience as before. Neither is in their interest.
What’s worse, if the FCC were to grant Apple’s request to remove the requirement to include telecoils in smartphones, it will open the door for other manufacturers to make similar moves, fragmenting the market in a way that will increase price, increase confusion and decrease the quality of service.
Look. The ownership cycles for hearing aids and phones are extremely different. Apple actually encourages its users to upgrade their phones every year through its iPhone upgrade program, and most users upgrade at least once every 18 months. But hearing-aid users typically change their hearing aids no more than once every five years.
And anyway, telecoil infrastructure could well stay in place for 10 years or more, no matter what Apple does or does not do.
Fragmenting the market in the name of progress is a terrible idea. For hearing-impaired people to have a consistent experience, they need a standard which will work for all products over several decades: a standard, not proprietary solutions that are standard-ish.
And impatience serves no one. It is well worth waiting for Bluetooth SIG and EHIMA to complete the new standard. The key thing is to get this spec to the point where it is robust enough to be installed and workable for a decade or more. That takes work and time but, yes, the products should start appearing within a few years.
It’s just wrong to allow one large phone manufacturer to disrupt the user experience millions of hearing-impaired men, women and children rely on. The FCC would be wise to turn down Apple’s petition and summarily turn down all others in the future.
For aNewDomain, I’m Nick Hunn.
Here is Apple’s petition to the FCC, asking it to remove the requirement to include telecoils in Apple iPhones.
Cover image credit: Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird, via hubpages, All Rights Reserved.