Can you hear me now?

Hearing aid wearers say all they hear are pings and buzzing when they try to make wireless calls--or even if they're standing next to someone using a cell phone. Now the FCC is trying to figure out what to do.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Most of the 6 million Americans who use hearing aids can't use a cell phone at the same time.

Hearing aid wearers say all they hear are clicks, pings or buzzing when they try to make wireless calls on the nation's digital telephone networks. Sometimes just standing within a few feet of a caller is enough to set their hearing aids buzzing. The reason: The cell phone's circuitry interferes with the operation of their hearing aids, they say.

"I get a 110 decibel buzz," said Dale Young, a lawyer and founding member of Hearing Impaired Professionals, based in San Francisco. "I can't use cell phones. As an attorney, that makes life a little difficult."

The Federal Communications Commission is deciding how to address the issue. It recently collected scores of comments from disability rights groups, the hearing impaired, telephone handset makers, and wireless carriers. The FCC will use the comments to help decide whether the same rules that made landline telephones compatible with hearing aids should apply to cell phones.

The controversy is another sign of the increasing pressures on the technology industry to make products accessible to those with disabilities.

Some hearing aid wearers say they don't have to be using a cell phone to experience the interference. Jo Waldron, who is hearing impaired, wrote in an e-mail that she hears an "extreme buzzing" when she is within a few feet of someone using a mobile handset.

"I swear I (might) get hit by a fire truck because I am near somebody using a cell phone and my hearing aid is doing nothing but buzzing," she added.

"We recognize there's a problem out there, but it's just the way the phone works," said Keith Nowak, a spokesman for handset maker Nokia. "At least today, the technology does not exist to help."

Digital dilemma
The interference is caused by the way cell phones send and receive calls on digital telephone networks. Most of the networks in the United States are either now, or soon will be, converted to digital networks, which send calls through the air by turning them into pulses of energy.

These pulses reach a cell phone and are translated back into voices. A hearing aid's antennas, however, also pick up the same pulses. But instead of voices, the hearing aids create a cacophony of torturous sounds within someone's ear.

Judy Harkins, professor of communication studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., said she hears what sounds like a bumblebee buzzing when she uses a phone powered by GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communication.

Phones using TDMA, or Time Division Multiple Access, create what sounds like a motorboat engine chewing through water, she said. Cingular Wireless has a TDMA network.

CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) phones, used by Sprint, among other carriers, produce a mix of static or clicking, she said.

The interference, however, hasn't stopped hearing aid wearers from using cell phones. Some discovered that a phone manufactured by Samsung does not create that much interference--but that just may be due to sheer luck. A spokeswoman for Sprint, which sells the phone, said she was unaware of the benefit. A Samsung representative did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

There are some products that try to alleviate the problem. Nokia, for instance, sells the "Loopset" for $99. It works by creating enough distance between the phone and the hearing aid to eliminate the chance of interference. The drawback, however, is that you have to wear a small box around your neck like a necklace.

Taking sides
Meanwhile, the blame game has begun in Washington. Telephone industry lobbyists from the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association wrote to the FCC that while the industry looks for a solution, hearing aid makers might want to make a better product.

The hearing aid industry says that would be impossible to do now and in the near future because hearing aids are so small there's not enough room to put any more software inside.

"This is still an issue, even though there is a phone that seems to be working," said Peter Tannenwald, special counsel for the Hearing Industries Association, which represents hearing aid makers. "The hard of hearing shouldn't be relegated to one phone."