Streaming audio over Wi-Fi for assistive listening is the new thing for the hard-of-hearing, multilingual listeners and overflow areas of church services and events.

For several decades the assistive listening technology landscape has been dominated by three twentieth-century analog technologies: Inductive Loop, Radio Frequency (usually FM) and Infrared (IR). Wi-Fi audio is now offering comparable and often superior alternatives to analog systems. How do they compare and how do churches know if Wi-Fi is the right solution? Let’s find out.

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Compelling mass-market numbers are driving the emergence of Wi-Fi audio as the up and coming technology. There are 1.4 billion smartphones sold every year and over $15 billion worth of Wi-Fi equipment sold each year as well. These numbers completely dwarf the entire assistive listening system market and lead to unmatchable economies of scale. This has lead to the BYOD (bring your own device) trend. Those devices are typically smartphones powered either by the Android or iOS (Apple) operating systems. So what are the other options and how do they work?

Inductive Loop

Inductive Loop technologies work like an electrical transformer where the primary loop is the loop around the venue and the secondary loop is the telecoil, or “T-coil,” in the hearing aid. There are millions of telecoil-equipped hearing aids already in use that need to be considered when looking at new technologies. Indeed, roughly 80% of new hearing aids in the US have T-coils.

The big advantage of Loop systems is that the user does not need any other device with them in order to hear the programming. On the other hand, loop systems are expensive, often inconvenient to install (one might need to pull up the carpet, for instance) and can have leakage and crosstalk among neighboring systems. Some of these issues are mitigated in more modern models, but expensive and challenging installations are still concerning.

FM Systems

Like the Loop, Radio frequency FM systems have good broadcast capabilities and are quite popular. FM has also been the system of choice, until now, for multilingual events since those participants will generally not have hearing aids. Interference and leakage are challenges, but for locations where a Loop cannot easily be installed, these systems have significant advantages.

The disadvantage is that the users need FM receivers, and hard of hearing users need to connect from the receiver to their ear or hearing aid. There is a wide range of receiver pricing, but a per-unit price tag of around $100 is not uncommon, and many congregations cannot afford to purchase receivers for all attendees.  Also, receivers have a tendency to walk off in the pockets of preoccupied attendees.

Infrared (IR) Transmitters

Infrared (IR) Transmitter and receiver systems offer yet another type of audio solution. The signals from these systems can generally be kept from leaking out of venues, and are the preferred method when privacy is critical. On the other hand, all the problems that light has with shadows and dead zones are present with infrared systems too because infrared is just invisible light. To combat this, most installations require multiple transmitters and, just like with FM, the users need to be provided with receivers. These factors can drive up costs.

How Streaming Wi-Fi Audio Works

Streaming Wi-Fi offers an alternative to the older technologies and works by converting the audio source to a digital stream, compressing it, and streaming the bits over a local area network (LAN) to a Wi-Fi wireless access point (WAP or AP). From the access point, the encoded data is streamed wirelessly to personal devices such as smartphones or tablets.

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An App on the phone receives the signals and decodes it for the user. The core of the system is the appliance that converts the (usually analog) inputs to data packets. Some systems integrate the Wi-Fi as well.  This figure shows a diagram of the system.

The Wi-Fi audio age is just beginning and adoption growth rates are accelerating as people experience its benefits. Assistive listening, overflow listening, and multilingual applications are now part of those benefits.

Overflow Assistance

In some churches overflow is the challenge, rather than people who are hard of hearing. Some congregations have a videocast to the overflow room, but many of those who can’t squeeze into the sanctuary do not get the full benefit of the service. With audio over Wi-Fi, they can hear anywhere in the building that the Wi-Fi reaches (e.g., kitchen, nursery, etc.) and continue to follow the service. The other challenge with overflow areas is that they are usually cacophonous. Smartphones with earbuds give people a chance to hear the service over the din. Another subtle advantage is that when the Loop goes down in a venue, only a few people care. When the Wi-Fi goes down, everyone cares and repairs become a priority.

The Future of Streaming Wi-Fi

An increasing number of venues are using streaming Wi-Fi audio for assistive listening applications, either as their only solution or in conjunction with other technologies. There are numerous advantages to these systems that can afford churches a greater ability to ensure attendees can connect, hear and fully participate in services and special events. Hard-of-hearing people are understandably sensitive about what they put in their ears, and using their own devices to connect is likely far more appealing. Wi-Fi audio offers this personalized solution for better listening. There are a few drawbacks, such as delays, and difficulty broadcasting to groups of over 2,000 simultaneous listeners as well as lack of access to applicable devices by seniors.

Take a more in-depth look at streaming Wi-Fi audio solutions by accessing the full white paper here.