Apple logoApple Inc has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to remove telecoil functionality requirements from its iPhone smartphones and instead recognize its MFi platform as a viable alternative to hearing aid compatibility (HAC) compliance.

In its January 28, 2016 petition to the FCC, the company states “Apple is driven to make its devices truly accessible, and believes that consumers with hearing loss deserve a better experience than what traditional hearing aid compatibility technologies offer today. iPhones comply with existing HAC rules. But as the Commission has recognized, Apple has also invested heavily to improve accessibility by developing a new hearing aid platform that relies on Bluetooth® technology. Apple believes that this Made for iPhone (“MFi”) hearing aid platform represents a substantial improvement to consumers over devices that are deemed accessible by today’s HAC rules.”

The petition then provides arguments for why the FCC should rely on qualitative assessments of HAC performance rather than traditional RF interference measurements as provided by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the current M/T-type HAC rating system. Apple says it developed an MFi hearing aid platform that relies on a wireless protocol and Bluetooth Low Energy techology, as opposed to acoustic/inductive (telecoil) coupling, to improve telephone listening for people with hearing impairment. They cite the ability for users to access FaceTime, VoiceOver, Siri, music and movie audio, as well as apps. They detail how the MFi platform and iPhone can be used to configure settings, use geo-tagging for specific listening situations, and perform as a remote microphone. The petition also cites the widening range of MFi-compatible hearing aids available.

It has been shown in several studies that using telecoils dramatically improves consumer experiences with their hearing devices (hearing aids or CIs) for nearly all participants. However, telecoil technology is old, having been employed in BTEs since the early 1970s. It requires relatively high amounts of energy and electronic real estate, is susceptible to interference, and is also limited in terms of high-fidelity listening. Yet, for decades, telecoils have been a staple and godsend for people with hearing aids who wish to hear their phones, TV/stereo systems, or in large-area settings that have been installed with loop systems.

The European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (EHIMA) and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG)— the world’s largest associations for hearing instrument manufacturing and for wireless technology—are currently working toward the establishment of a standard for new hearing aids, while improving existing features and the creation of new ones such as stereo audio from a mobile device or media gateway with Bluetooth® wireless technology. EHIMA Secretary General Soren Hougaard has stated in a Hearing Review news article (March 21, 2014), “It is important that we connect to and serve all kinds of smartphones and multimedia sound signals. In order to achieve that, we must define a standard everyone can implement. We want to avoid the situation that occurred in the market for videotapes in the 1980s where customers had to choose among 3-5 tape formats and corresponding VCRs. That was a nightmare!”

That same news article also points out that the only standard for wireless reception of audio signals in hearing aids is the telecoil. EHIMA said that building on the existing Bluetooth standard that is widely supported in today’s smartphones, tablets, and personal computers will give more hearing-impaired users the same choice of products and opportunities as everyone else.

Nick Hunn, an influential tech blogger, writes in a February 10 blog that, although Apple is understandably impatient, its desire to go it alone with a proprietary standard represents a selfish move. Ultimately, it could switch the burden for telephone listening back onto consumers who would either have to switch their phone model or buy new MFi-compatible hearing aids. More importantly, he points out that “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.” Hunn contends that fragmenting the market for one manufacturer is a terrible idea; instead, he says it is well worth the wait for a Bluetooth SIG/EHIMA open standard to emerge.

Update: Audiologists Juliette Sterkens and Abram Bailey have started an online petition against Apple’s proposal. You can access the petition at Change.org, along with more information about the FCC’s  proposed new rules changes, by clicking here.