‘Next generation’ text relay service goes live

06 October 2014

People with hearing or speech impairments can now hold faster, more fluent telephone conversations thanks to a 'next generation' text relay service, which is now available.

Text relay enables people with hearing or speech impairments to communicate with others over the telephone. A relay assistant acts as an intermediary to convert speech to text, and vice versa for the two people in conversation.

In October 2012, Ofcom decided that an improved text relay service must be made available to UK users, allowing them to have more natural conversations and easier access on a wider range of mainstream devices, such as PCs, laptops, tablet computers and smartphones.

The new service has been developed by BT, but all landline and mobile telephone providers are making it available to their customers.

Ofcom has today published a new consumer guide to text relay to help users make the most of the additional benefits offered by the 'next generation' service.

The benefits of 'next generation' text relay

Research among users of the old text relay service found that callers were frustrated by their inability to interrupt and hold 'real time' conversations. Users also reported that the speeds of conversations were generally slow, as callers had to take turns to speak or type.

Ofcom therefore worked closely with disability stakeholders and industry to ensure that a 'next generation' text relay service delivers an improved experience to its users. The main improvements are:

Faster, more fluent conversations

  • The new service allows for parallel speech, hearing and text, with the ability to interject for the first time, and without the need to say or type 'go ahead' after each part of a conversation. The conversation flows much more quickly and naturally as a result.

Text relay on the move

  • To access text relay previously, users needed a textphone, which cost around £300 and are not easily portable. 'Next generation' text relay enables easier access to the service on the move on devices such as smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.
  • Textphones can still be used, although users will need an internet-connected device and a phone to fully benefit from all the improvements, such as the ability to hear the other person's voice and see the text at the same time.

New phone numbers that automatically route calls via the relay service

  • Hearing and speech impaired text relay users can now link their landline and/or mobile number to a 'TextNumber' - a standard 11-digit phone number that will bring the relay service into the call automatically. This means that people calling hearing and speech impaired users who use TextNumbers no longer have to dial the 18002 prefix before their number, nor do they need to know about the text relay service in advance.

Call costs

  • Earlier this year, Ofcom clarified its rules to ensure that relay calls continue to be charged at the same rate as a standard telephone call. Disabled users are also entitled to a special tariff to compensate them for the additional time taken by their relay calls.

Upgrading text relay services

Ofcom told all UK landline and mobile providers that they must give their customers access to an enhanced text relay service by 18 April 2014.

Ofcom approved BT's service, called the 'Next Generation Text Service', earlier this year after assessing it against detailed criteria and performance targets. These include minimum requirements covering staff training, service performance, technical resilience and complaints handling.

Disappointingly, BT missed the April deadline for launching the service after its testing revealed technical problems relating to the connection of emergency calls.

BT has now resolved this issue and has reported to Ofcom that it is fully confident that the service is working as it should. Ofcom is investigating the reasons for BT's delay in providing the new text relay service to its customers and expects to publish its conclusions later this year.

Next steps

Ofcom will monitor the new text relay service to ensure it meets the required standards. Ofcom has also commissioned research to compare the current and new relay service and will monitor developments in speech recognition technology. This may support further improvements to text relay services in the future.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom's Consumer and Content Group Director, said: “We're pleased that hearing and speech impaired customers can finally start to benefit from the new 'next generation' text relay service.

“The enhanced service delivers real improvements to the text relay experience, allowing users to have conversations more easily and fluently. We'll monitor the performance of the new service to ensure it meets our expected standards.”

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  1. All UK landline and mobile providers are required to give their customers access to an Ofcom approved enhanced text relay service where they need to make calls using it because of their disability.  Ofcom has approved BT's service, which it will provide to its own customers to meet its regulatory obligations, and which it will allow other providers to use to meet their obligations to their customers.  Ofcom's investigation is looking at BT's performance of its obligations to its customers in relation to the enhanced text relay service.
  2. To access BT's next generation text relay service on a smartphone or computer users will need to download the free 'Next Generation Text' app from www.ngts.org.uk or from an approved app store such as Google Play or the Apple Store. The app will work on personal computers running Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Linux and Intel based Mac running OS X. Your computer must have Java 1.7 installed.
  3. Under section 3(4) of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a duty to have regard to the needs of disabled and elderly people when carrying out its functions.
  4. General Condition 15 requires landline and mobile telephone providers to provide access for their customers to an approved text relay service.