Nick Hunn: Why The FCC Should Say No To Apple’s Telecoil Question

Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird telecoils

Apple has petitioned the FCC to be allowed to remove telecoil tech from the Apple iPhone. This might be good for Apple, says audio tech expert Nick Hunn, but it’s an awful decision for everyone else. Here’s why.

nick hunn telecoils Apple FCC anewdomainaNewDomain 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.

Apple Petitions FCC To Remove iPhone Telecoils

Cover image credit: Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird, via hubpages, All Rights Reserved.

About the author

Nick Hunn

Based in London, Nick Hunn is the founder and CTO of WiFore Consulting and the chair of the Bluetooth Hearing Aid Working Group. His latest book, The Essentials of Short Range Wireless, is available now. Check out Nick's tech blog at NickHunn.com -- and email him at Nick@WiFore.com.

8 Comments

  • In 2014, I filed a letter of concern/complaint with the FCC on this very issue. My question;

    “The issue seems to be that while the phone is hearing aid compatible, only certain hearing aids have the LE Bluetooth feature. Does the FCC have jurisdiction over a phone containing a feature where only certain hearing aids are compatible with the phone? The FDA does not apparently have jurisdiction as well. Who would over see this or has Apple found a loophole between two federal agencies?”

    The FCC responded: “We generally do not have jurisdiction over hearing aids, and that seems to be what is at issue here…I think you may be right that this is falling between our respective authorities.”

    The foreseeable future has now arrived. Apple is seeking inappropriately, as this article clearly articulates, to remove the telecoil from its phone that benefits millions of people who are hard of hearing. This is after Apple initially installed a hearing induction loop in its NYC Soho store at my suggestions and request. (BTW, I am also the person who suggested to them that they enter the hearing aid market which at the time of our meeting they thought was a great idea.) It gives the appearance that Apple doesn’t want to expand an induction loop program that would benefit millions of people with hearing loss at the genius bars in their very noisy stores including the new Madison Avenue, NYC store. Hearing access cannot be proprietary. To do so would violate the spirit and intent of the ADA.

    This application is self-serving and would harm people with hearing loss. We cannot permit companies to use proprietary hearing access in phones. Every person with hearing loss should know that they can pick up any cell phone in an emergency as I told CEA at the 2014 M-Enabling Summit. One hopes they never find themselves in a 9/11 situation but can you imagine if someone was prevented from calling their loved one to say their final words because the nearest phone was not hearing aid compatible.

    I hope the FCC will say no because the FCC does have jurisdiction over the telecoil. We have come so far and cannot roll back on hearing aid compatibility.

    Janice S. Lintz

  • I wish to share some text from a recent FCC Report, dated November 20, 2015:

    “What are the costs and benefits of allowing these alternative approaches? For example, Apple proposes that the Commission apply the ANSI standards as a ‘safe harbor’ for hearing aid compatibility but to ‘reward innovators for finding other, better solutions that result in real accessibility even if they do not meet the ANSI standards.’ Although Apple proposes this approach as an alternative method of meeting the existing benchmarks, we seek comment on whether to adopt it in conjunction with the Joint Consensus Proposal. We also seek comment on how to determine hearing aid compatibility outside of compliance with the applicable ANSI standard. We invite commenters to consider alternatives of this kind when evaluating the Joint Consensus Proposal.”

    Nick, it sounds like you are correct. It looks like Apple is seeking to have its wireless approach approved as an alternative to ANSI-based Hearing Aid Compatibility. This could be a real problem for consumers who purchase a future iPhone (presumably with no telecoil support), and then have a more limited set of HAC hearing aids to choose from.

  • As much as I completely agree with the general message of this article, there does seem to be a glaring technical inaccuracy. Telecoils are fitted to hearing aids, rather than smart phones, and pick up the magnetic field produced by the smartphone speakers (no antenna required).

    So unless Apple are proposing to start using piezoelectric speakers instead of magnetic ones, or removing the speakers all together (bother very unlikely), then they simply can’t make iPhones incompatible with telecoil enabled hearing aids.

    What they do appear to be proposing is a new proprietary Apple-only Bluetooth connection platform called ‘Made for iPhone’ (MFi)… and a host of wearable aids to connect to it that aren’t telecoil enabled.

    In other words, Apple want iPhone users to only use their new Apple hearing aids. In much the same way as they are proposing to replace the universal headphone jack so that users need to buy Apple headphones.

    Apple’s FCC petition claims that this is not a restrictive technology as other Manufacturers can produce MFi compatible devices (possibly under a profitable licence from Apple?).

    However, by not including telecoils in their new aids they are reducing the functionality significantly – not only making them incompatible with telephones, but also making decades of installed ‘Assistive Listening’ devices in public places unavailable to the users. The FCC should know that?!?

    Innovation is a great thing, but smartphone manufacturers (or hearing aid manufacturers for that matter) creating proprietary connection technologies at the expense of universal ones is a ‘terrible idea’ and can only be a negative proposition for people with hearing loss.

    The use of telecoils as a method of directly connecting hearing aids to telephones and hearing loops has been around for such a long time for a very good reason. Namely that there is currently no viable alternative that is actually an improvement.

    1. They are simple and universal. They work exactly the same no matter what brand of hearing aid you use, or what you choose to connect to, be it a smartphone or a hearing loop in a theatre (no ‘coupling’ etc).

    2. They are passive. Telecoils are powered by the current induced by the magnetic field that they couple with and do not require power from the hearing aid battery.

    3. They are compact and cheap, typically costing less than $1.

    4. It’s free to use. The hearing aid user doesn’t need to buy any extra proprietary products to connect to the audio source.

    SIG/EHIMA have been working on a non-proprietary low power Bluetooth Standard for some time now, and it will likely take a considerable amount of time longer before it comes to fruition, as anyone has ever sat on a Standards committee knows, nothing happens overnight. I was told 10 years some years ago now, and there doesn’t seem to be any great advancement since then.

    When it does arrive it should be a new alternative to telecoils, rather than a replacement. I’m sure it will spark a great deal of innovation in the technologies used to transmit sounds to hearing aids, and both the hearing aid and general assistive listening product manufacturers will get behind it.

    If Apple, Samsung or any other tech giant can’t wait and wish to develop their own – then that’s entirely their prerogative, but the FCC shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to allow them to develop proprietary connective tech that excludes the current use of telecoils or any new universal Bluetooth Standard when it eventually comes to fruition.

    Put simply, the FCC shouldn’t allow any manufacturer to produce hearing aids that only couple with one audio source in order to sell proprietary products. That’s bad news for people with hearing loss and will stifle innovation in the industry as a whole.

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