Ofcom plans to upgrade telecoms services for disabled people

28 July 2011

Phone users with hearing and/or speech impairments stand to benefit from new measures being proposed today by Ofcom.

By law, communications providers must provide 'text relay' services for disabled consumers. This involves a relay assistant converting typed messages into speech and then back again, allowing consumers with hearing and/or speech impairments to communicate on the phone.

Ofcom research has found that these conversations can be slow and sometimes fail to flow naturally. Ofcom is therefore proposing to upgrade services by introducing a number of modifications to bring the experience more in line with voice communications. This includes a new feature that will allow users to interject during a conversation, instead of having to wait until the end of a message.

Ofcom is also setting out options for the introduction of video relay for British Sign Language (BSL) users.

Ofcom Consumer Group Director, Claudio Pollack, said: "People with disabilities can face barriers when using communications services. Although the wide availability and use of broadband and mobile text services has provided greater opportunities for disabled people to communicate, people with hearing and/or speech impairments continue to meet barriers when using voice telephony.

"The proposed measures outlined today aim to reduce these barriers by allowing conversations to flow naturally in real time."

Research

Ofcom has conducted research to better understand the needs of disabled consumers when accessing communications services. That research suggests that the current approved text relay service remains a valuable service for many users with hearing and/or speech impairments, helping them to communicate with others on an equivalent basis to voice communications.

However, the current text relay service was criticised for not allowing natural real time conversations, slow conversation speeds and for not being compatible with mainstream equipment such as PCs and Macs. Users of British Sign Language - particularly those with low levels of literacy - also reported finding text relay services difficult to use.

Next generation Text Relay service

Having considered the options, Ofcom is proposing that a Next Generation Text Relay service should be introduced to support the following:

  • The introduction of simultaneous two-way speech with "live captions". This will allow users to interject and would remove the need to say 'go ahead' after each part of a conversation, improving the flow of conversation.
  • Use of mainstream equipment. This will allow users to access services either through existing relay equipment or through mainstream consumer electronics such as PCs and netbooks.

Video relay

Recognising the benefits that video relay could offer some disabled consumers, particularly BSL users with low levels of literacy, Ofcom is also proposing the introduction of video relay on a restricted basis. A further consultation on the detailed implementation of a video relay service will be conducted once the appropriate level of restriction has been established.

The consultation is available here http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/review-relay-services/ and will close on 20th October 2011.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. Under the Universal Service Directive ('the Directive') Member States are required to ensure that access to, and affordability of voice telephony and directory services for users with disabilities is equivalent to the level enjoyed by the majority of consumers. The requirements of the Directive are implemented in the United Kingdom by the Communications Act 2003 ('the Act'), and the Universal Service Order 2003 ('the Order') and require Ofcom to ensure the provision of text relay ('TR') services.

2. Ofcom has therefore imposed a Universal Service Condition 4 ('USC4') on BT and General Conditions 15 ('GC15') on all communications providers ('CPs') including BT to ensure that disabled users are able to access a TR service, approved by Ofcom, regardless of their choice of telephone provider.

3. The proposals above would be an update to these General Conditions.

4. Under section 3(4) of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a duty to have regard to the needs of persons with disabilities and of the elderly.