A great number of people in our ageing societies have to deal with hearing loss. Hearing-aids are an essential tool in dealing with diminishing hearing capacity and demands are high to make them work in all hearing environments that people encounter in daily life. Most importantly, people using hearing-aids need them to function well with other devices of common use such as mobile phones. We have talked to Marcel Vlaming from EHIMA, the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association, to get his inside view on today's state-of-the-art and future outlook for hearing-aids and mobile communications.
What do you see today as the biggest challenge of making hearing-aids work with mobile phones?
Marcel: Hearing-aids should help persons to use mobile phones as easy as normally hearing people. Currently a hearing-aid compatible mobile phone will have a magnetic device built-in that communicates with the T-coil that is built-in many hearing-aids. Most phones will not have this magnetic device as it an extra in design and costs (see compatibility statements and T-rating). However many mobile phones offer Bluetooth connectivity. Therefore it is a big challenge that mobile phones will use new Bluetooth functionality to offer communication with hearing-aids. And for hearing-aid manufacturers to integrate a Bluetooth chip in their hearing aids, without size increasing too much and without battery consumption getting too high. For this reason, a new worldwide Bluetooth standard is under way, that may give first products in one or two years. Some first wireless hearing-aid products are available already, but these will not give general connectivity as yet.
This new Bluetooth wireless connectivity will give improved sound quality (low noise; increased audio bandwidth; stereo), easier use and an advanced appeal that even normally hearing users do not always use (compare to using a headset for phones and for music players).
Do you consider the US HAC rating scheme useful to consumers? Or what kind of information would consumers rather need to efficiently use their hearing-aids for mobile telephony? What kind of information should hearing-aid manufacturers and mobile phone manufacturers provide to help the consumer?
Marcel: The HAC rating scheme is useful, but only the ratings T3 and T4 will have acceptable quality for hearing-aid t-coil use (see ANSI C63.19). In Europe the ETSI standard ES 200 381-2 must be used that allows phones to be classified hearing-aid compatible when a minimum T-coil performance is met (comparable to US T3 category). Phones that have improved performance may be denoted as T4 which means that they have improved signal to noise ratio for use with hearing-aid t-coils. All other phones should be denoted as non-HA compatible. Mobile phone manufacturers/vendors should be invited to publish more actively the HA compliance of their models.
How will the new Bluetooth standard that the industry is working on, impact the experience of hearing-aid users in regards to mobile telephony?
Marcel: The T-ratings and ETSI ES 200 381-2 standard will become obsolete gradually when the new Bluetooth standard for hearing-aids is going to be used in phones. It is expected that most phones with Bluetooth will sooner or later support this new HA standard, together with the roll out and use of new Bluetooth chips.
The new Bluetooth standard is suitable not only for mobile phones but also for many mainstream audio devices. This means that hearing-aid wireless connectivity will get integrated in personal music players, televisions and other applications such as audio in theatres, cinemas, churches, public announcements and alarms. This development is expected to go along with mainstream Bluetooth audio developments that will get supported by variants of the new Bluetooth standard.
What would you consider the single most important action that the mobile industry could do to make mobile telephony more accessible for the hard-of-hearing community?
Marcel: To support the new Bluetooth hearing-aid standard (i.e. from end 2016) and implement into products. Before that they should publish which phone models are hearing-aid compatible for T-coils.
For more information about EHIMA, please look at: http://www.ehima.com