People with disabilities can face barriers when using communications services and, in particular, voice telephony which, by its nature, requires a certain degree of speech and hearing.
Although the wide availability and use of broadband and mobile text messaging 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 difficulties of disabled people being able to use voice telephony and the important service offered by it are recognised in the regulatory framework under which Ofcom operates. Under the Universal Service Directive (the Directive) Member States are required to ensure that access to, and affordability of voice telephony for end-users with disabilities is equivalent to the level enjoyed by the majority of end-users. 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. Those services allow hearing- and/or speech-impaired end-users to communicate with others through a relay assistant that will convert speech to text and vice versa in order to assist disabled end-users with communication via voice telephony.
Ofcom has therefore imposed Universal Service Condition 4 (USC4) on BT and General Condition 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.
BT currently provides a TR service to comply with its obligations to both its own customers and other CPs. As required by the GC, in order to ensure the affordability of the service, users pay no more than standard telephony charges, even though the average cost of providing the service is around 60p per minute. The ongoing cost to the CPs for each of the 11,000 users is approximately 400 per year based on current levels of usage.
This consultation sets out Ofcom's proposals for amending the regulatory regime in relation to services for disabled end-users and in particular those with hearing and/or speech impairments. The requirement to provide the current TR service, then known as TypeTalk, was originally included as a licence condition for BT and KCom in October 2001, prior to the introduction of the new regulatory framework in 2003. There have been significant technological advances in the communications sector since that time as well as changes to the way in which services are used by consumers. Ofcom is therefore conducting this consultation to assess the extent to which the existing requirements for TR services continue to meet the needs of disabled end-users. In particular, Ofcom is considering whether it is appropriate to require the provision of new services for end-users with hearing and/or speech impairments in order to ensure the greatest level of equivalence as possible under the current framework.