What is that buzzing noise in my cell phone?

People who wear hearing aids or have implanted hearing devices may experience some difficulties when trying to use cell phones. That buzzing noise you hear is interference due to radiofrequency (RF) emissions from your phone. RF interference does not occur for all combinations of digital wireless telephones and hearing aids. However, when interference does occur, the buzzing sound can make understanding speech difficult, communication over cell phones annoying, and, in the worst case, render the cell phone unusable for the hearing aid user.

Fortunately, the compatibility of cell phones and hearing aids is improving. Some cell phones have lower radiofrequency emissions or use different technologies that can reduce the unwanted effects on hearing aids.

What should I look for in a cell phone?

Rules set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) make it easier for you to choose a cell phone right for you. The FCC requires cell phone manufacturers to test and rate their wireless handsets’ hearing aid compatibility using the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) C63.19 standard. These ratings give an indication of the likelihood that a cell phone may interfere with hearing aids; the higher the rating, the less likely the cell phone-hearing aid combination will experience undesired interference.

Labeling on the outside packaging of cell phones will tell you if they are hearing aid compatible (HAC). Hearing aid users should read and understand these ratings when choosing a cell phone. For more information, see Hearing Aids and Cell Phones.

What do these ratings mean?

Cell phones that are rated “good” or “excellent” for use with hearing aids set in microphone (M) mode will have a rating of M3 or M4. The higher the “M” rating, the less likely you will experience interference when the hearing aid is set in the microphone mode while using the cell phone.

Cell phones are also rated with hearing aids or cochlear implants that have a T-coil. (See Types of Hearing Aids, What are some features for hearing aids?) Those rated “good” or “excellent” for use with hearing aids set in T-coil mode will have a rating of T3 or T4. The higher the “T” rating, the less likely you will experience interference when the hearing aid is set in the T-coil mode while using the cell phone.

Hearing aid manufacturers also use a rating system from the same ANSI standard. The hearing aid ratings and the cell phone ratings should be combined to help identify combinations that will provide you with a positive experience. So, a hearing aid rated M2 and a wireless device rated M3 with a combined rating of 5 and would likely provide “normal” use. A ratings combination of 6 would likely provide “excellent performance”. Every individual’s hearing aid technology and settings are unique; therefore, these ratings do not guarantee performance.

Because these HAC ratings do not guarantee performance, you should “try before you buy” any wireless device if possible. You should try different brands and models to see which phone works best for you. Also, be sure to closely examine the return policy for the device and the service provider’s policy on early termination of contracts before signing up for service.