NCI Markets Bluetooth To Hearing-Impaired

By Joseph Palenchar On Nov 7 2005 - 8:00am

Distributor National Cellular Inc. (NCI) will give hearing-impaired people the ability for the first time to turn select hearing aids into wireless Bluetooth hands-free headsets.

The company has begun offering cellular carriers a Bluetooth-enabled module, or ear-level instrument (ELI), that plugs directly into any behind-the-ear hearing aid incorporating a direct audio input connector. A DSP-equipped microphone is built into the module.

The module was developed by Starkey Laboratories, the world's largest hearing-aid manufacturer and developer of hearing-aid-compatible hands-free wired headsets using proprietary Hearing Aid Telephone Interconnect Systems (HATIS) technology.

Earlier this year, NCI began marketing HATIS headsets, which were previously available only through audiologists, said NCI's executive director Nelson Roberts. The decision made NCI “the largest distributor of cellular phone hearing-aid adapters to cellular carriers and dealers,” he said.

Like the wired HATIS headsets, the ELI device puts enough distance between a cellular handset and the hearing aid to prevent the hearing aid from picking up the EMI [electromagnetic interference] generated by a digital phone's speaker and producing a buzzing sound that makes it difficult or impossible to hear, Roberts said. The “vast majority” of hearing aids are susceptible to buzzing and other noises when a handset is held next to them, Roberts said. The ELI “eliminates virtually all of the problems that hearing aid wearers typically encounter with wireless phones, including acoustic feedback, insufficient volume, noise from other electrical sources and mobile phone interference,” Roberts said.

Not all hearing aids accept a direct plug-in, Roberts noted. The direct audio input “is a somewhat common connector in the hearing aid industry, but only in the past couple of years,” Roberts explained. “Only 20 percent of the total hearing aid population is so equipped.”

For the remaining hearing-aid users, who number about 6 million, NCI offers an optional neck-loop adapter, which docks with the Bluetooth-equipped ELI. The adapter passively converts the ELI's Bluetooth signal to magnetic impulses that are wirelessly transmitted to a hearing aid's t-coil. No wires connect the handset to the neck-loop adapter or the adapter to the hearing aid, Roberts emphasized.

The ELI Bluetooth module is a suggested $199.95. The neck-loop adapter is a suggested $99.95. The module can be rotated for use with left-ear and right-ear hearing aids, enabling control buttons to face away from the user's head. Margins for carriers and distributors are customary for the wireless industry, he noted.

The ELI device comes with a charger and delivers 2.5 hours of talk time or 140 hours of standby time on its internal rechargeable lithium-ion-polymer battery. It does not drain current from the hearing aid battery. Recharge time is 1.5 hours. It weighs 0.18 ounces and is 1.06 inches by 0.71 inches by 0.53 inches in size.

The Bluetooth devices and wired HATIS headsets give the hearing impaired more handset options, given the limited number of handsets that are hearing-aid compatible, Roberts said.

Major carriers are phasing in the availability of compatible headsets and are required by the FCC to make 50 percent of their handsets hearing-aid compatible by February 2008. Currently, however, Verizon offers only five handsets, and Sprint offers eight for its CDMA 1x network and five for its iDEN network. T-Mobile offered two by mid-October and plans to offer four by Nov. 16. Cingular said it offers about six.

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