Ofcom today set out five priorities to deal with issues preventing widespread access to communications services including proposals to introduce an emergency mobile roaming service in the UK.
This will provide added reassurance to consumers should they need to call 999 or 112.
At the moment, mobile calls to emergency numbers can only be connected if the caller's own network is available in the area. This is a particular issue in remote areas and means that in some parts of the UK - particularly in Scotland and Wales - emergency mobile calls cannot be connected from certain mobile networks.
Ofcom is working closely with mobile network operators and the emergency services to develop a service where emergency calls automatically "roam" onto an available network if there is no coverage from a customer's own mobile service.
To secure a 999 mobile roaming service in the UK, Ofcom will consider the experience of other European countries, in particular with regard to hoax and nuisance calls made to emergency services due to inadvertent dialling of 999.
If technical trials by the mobile network operators are successful, Ofcom expects this service to be in place by the end of the year.
The proposals form part of Ofcom's consultation on Access and Inclusion published today. The consultation considers the issues preventing take up of communications services and whether there are significant gaps in their geographic availability.
Ofcom will conduct the most comprehensive review of the existing Universal Service Obligation (USO) since 1997, including an assessment of the net cost burden of providing the USO.
The USO ensures that all consumers have access to a basic set of fixed-line services at an affordable price. It requires BT and KCOM to provide a landline connection upon request, to provide special tariffs for low income consumers and reasonable access to public phone boxes and in the case of BT only, to provide equivalent access to basic telephony services for disabled people, including those with speech and hearing impairments.
The review will consider the funding and procurement arrangements to ensure that USO provision is both effective and proportionate in light of the significant developments in the market since 1997.
The report also examines the reasons why people haven't got broadband at home. The research shows that of the population that don't have broadband:
Ofcom will consider these reasons for exclusion in its work to help the Government develop its proposals for a Universal Service Commitment for broadband by 2012. It will also assess the network options that could be used to increase the availability and speed of broadband in the UK.
Ofcom will also conduct a comprehensive assessment of the challenges disabled consumers face in accessing and using communications services.
This will include an evaluation of the existing text relay service which enables hearing and speech impaired people to use the telephone. This service remains important for users, but relies on technology that is 30 years old and suffers from a number of drawbacks. The work will include a study of the new technology which assists communication for disabled consumers.
As outlined in the Government's Digital Britain report, Ofcom will be leading the work on developing a National Media Literacy Plan as well as assessing its current duties in relation to media literacy.
Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards said: "There are now more 999 calls made from mobiles than fixed line phones so it is vital that we and the mobile operators develop a roaming service to ensure people in need have full access to safety of life services.
"It's time to ensure that anyone who wants a decent basic broadband service can get one so we will need to develop a coherent response to the full range of barriers to broadband take-up in the UK. The research we are publishing today provides a sound basis for future action"
Ofcom's proposals to introduce a 999 mobile roaming service have been welcomed by groups across the UK:
Ed Kilgore, Chairman of Mourne Mountain Rescue Team in Northern Ireland, said: "The more chance there is of making an emergency call on your mobile when you're in trouble in the mountains, the quicker rescue teams can come to your aid. Roaming to another UK mobile network would give people greater reassurance of being able to make a call that could save their life."
Roger Wild, Mountain Safety Adviser with The Mountaineering Council of Scotland said: "This proposal will greatly increase the chances of getting a message through to the mountain rescue services in the event of an emergency. The benefit of being able to phone for help rather than walk off the hill to raise the alarm cannot be overstated. Introducing an emergency mobile roaming service in the UK could save lives."
Tom Franklin, Chief Executive of the Ramblers said: "The Ramblers warmly welcomes this proposal. Most of us now carry mobile phones, and it will now be much easier for walkers to call for help if they get into genuine difficulties in the countryside. Accidents can happen to even the most experienced walkers and this new initiative may well prove a lifesaver."
NOTES FOR EDITORS
* kbps and Mbit/s - kilobits per second and Megabits per second are industry-standard measures of the speed of data transfer over the internet.
1. Ofcom estimates there are 26 million UK households.