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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Cell phone makers must soon offer handsets that work with hearing aids, providing the growing number of people with hearing problems the benefits of wireless communication, regulators said Thursday.
Many digital wireless phones can emit electromagnetic energy that interferes with hearing aids and implants, turning amplified sounds into static and squeals.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to require that by February 2008 half of the digital cell phones offered must emit lower energy levels that do not cause interference.
"This action will result in members of the hearing disabled community having dramatically increased access to digital wireless phones -- access that will improve their lives and promote their safety," Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said.
In the United States, about one in 10 people have some degree of hearing loss, the FCC said. That proportion is expected to rise as the population ages.
About 6 million people use hearing aids and more than 20,000 people have cochlear implants, which send auditory signals to the brain to restore hearing in people with certain types of hearing loss.
Hearing aids typically work with phones by either amplifying sound from a microphone or using a device called a telecoil, which receives magnetic fields directly from compatible telephones to produce clearer sound. About a quarter of hearing aids use telecoils, which are usually intended for people with severe hearing loss.
Federal rules require most telephones to be compatible with hearing aids, but until now cell phones have been exempt.
Under the new rules, most manufacturers and cellular providers must offer at least two handset models that emit reduced amounts of energy and won't interfere with hearing aids within two years. Within three years, the companies must offers two models with telecoils.
The 2008 deadline for half of all phones is the same as the expiration date for a government requirement that wireless carriers provide analog cellular service. Analog phones usually don't interfere with hearing aids.
The cell phone industry said the FCC decision does more harm than good.
"The wireless industry is committed to ensuring that our customers who wear hearing aids are able to use wireless services, and we will work with the hearing aid industry and consumer groups to achieve this goal," said Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. "Today's FCC mandates will unnecessarily complicate this cooperation and constrain innovative solutions."
He said the new standard should apply to hearing aids and not just cell phones.
Some cell phones already are compatible with hearing aids, but they are not widely advertised and can be hard to find, said Brenda Battat, public policy director for Self Help For Hard of Hearing People, a Bethesda, Md.-based consumer group.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Battat said. She said the new rules, which include a labeling requirement for compatible phones, are a step forward.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)