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FCC program that gives tech to deaf, blind Americans is permanent

Plus, new rules increase the number of hearing-aid compatible wireless devices carriers and manufacturers have to offer.

The FCC's iCanConnect program, which provides communication equipment to low-income deaf and blind Americans, is now permanent after four years in pilot form. Known formally as the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, it offers $10 million a year to local providers of communication technology aimed at helping deaf and blind folks connect with family and friends, and live more independently.

Those who meet the income guidelines can receive equipment designed to bolster access to the internet, telecommunications services and advanced communication systems for free, along with training and installation support. The FCC certifies one distributor per state or territory to provide the equipment and related services, and the new rules expand the program to the US territories of Guam, Northern Marianas and American Samoa. The pilot program already covered the 50 US states, DC, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The FCC says thousands of Americans have already benefited from iCanConnect.

In another ruling today, the FCC expanded its requirements for wireless carriers and hardware manufacturers to offer hearing-aid compatible devices, as part of an effort to eventually achieve 100 percent compatibility. Under the new rules, 66 percent of a manufacturer's models must be hearing-aid compatible within the next two years, and that is bumped up to 85 percent within the next five years. Service providers have the same benchmarks but are offered additional time to comply.

The FCC is striving for 100 percent compatibility within the next eight years.

"Digital wireless handset manufacturers, consumer groups and wireless service providers have devoted time, effort and expertise to this groundbreaking collaborative effort," the FCC says. "The revisions adopted today are a reflection of that collaboration and will ensure greater access to wireless communications services for Americans with hearing loss."

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