Review of relay services: Decision on the introduction of Next Generation Text Relay

17 October 2012

1.1 This Statement presents our decision to amend General Condition 15 in order to require communications providers (both fixed and mobile) to provide access for their customers to an improved relay service, which we have called Next Generation Text Relay (NGTR). We are also revoking Universal Service Condition 4, which requires BT to fund a text relay service and provide wholesale access to users of other communications providers.

1.2 Relay services enable people with hearing and/or speech impairments to make and receive telephone calls. At present, all fixed and mobile communications providers have to provide access to a text relay service approved by Ofcom. The service is currently funded and provided by BT pursuant to its Universal Service obligations. It allows hearing and/or speech impaired end users to communicate with others on the telephone through a relay assistant, who acts as an intermediary by converting voice to text and text to voice in order to facilitate the call.

1.3 We started a review in 2011 to examine the current requirements on communications providers to provide text relay services for their customers, particularly in the context of significant technological developments and changes in the legislative framework at the European level. Notably, there have been changes to the Universal Service Directive, which requires Member States to take specific measures to ensure access to, and affordability of, voice telephony services for end users with disabilities that is equivalent to the level enjoyed by other end users. The need to secure equivalence of access for disabled end users has driven this review.

1.4 We set out our analysis and proposals from the review in consultation documents published in July 2011 and May 2012. We proposed changes to the rules to require the introduction of a new service, which we called NGTR, to be provided by all communications providers. NGTR represents a significant technological improvement to the existing text relay system, taking advantage of both voice and data connections to improve the functionality of the current text relay service by providing users with the ability to increase conversation speeds, interrupt conversations and have two-way speech. It will also allow users to benefit from the use of mainstream equipment such as PCs and tablets, rather than being restricted to specialist equipment such as textphones. We engaged extensively throughout this process with disability and industry stakeholder groups.

1.5 The 2011 Consultation set out our initial proposals for NGTR based on consumer research and technical analysis from consultants InterConnect Communications (ICC). After reviewing responses to the 2011 Consultation, we decided to consult further in 2012 on the costs and benefits of NGTR, the case for all communications providers to provide access to the service and the criteria that Ofcom will use to consider relay providers for approval.

1.6 Our proposals in the 2012 Consultation were based on further cost analysis carried out for Ofcom by ICC. This analysis indicated that the additional costs for other communication providers (who are already providing access to the current text relay service) of connecting with an NGTR service provided by BT, or a third party provider, would be limited. We noted that BT had confirmed its intention to develop an NGTR service and provide a wholesale access service for other communications providers. We noted that if it were necessary for other communication providers to set up an NGTR service independently from BT, the information provided by ICC suggested that they would face similar set up costs to those identified for BT.

1.7 Looking at the benefits of maintaining the requirement for all fixed and mobile communications providers to provide access to a relay service in the light of our NGTR proposals, we consulted on our view that it is appropriate that disabled users have the choice of communications provider. We considered that both fixed and mobile communication providers should be available to the majority of end users and that customers should not be limited to voice telephony services from BT (or from fixed-line communications providers). We explained that maintaining the current position, whereby all communications providers are required to provide access to the relay service, would allow disabled consumers to benefit from the competitive and dynamic communications market present in the UK, including the benefits of mobile voice telephony.

1.8 Having carefully considered all of the responses to both consultations and following extensive dialogue with disability and industry stakeholders, this Statement sets out our decision to require all fixed and mobile communications providers to provide access to a relay service with NGTR functionality. We will implement this through a modification to General Condition 15 and the revocation of Universal Service Condition 4. Annexes 2 and 3 contain the formal notifications to this effect. These changes will take effect immediately, with communications providers being required to implement NGTR within 18 months. The existing text relay service will continue to be in place in the interim, pending full implementation of NGTR. On the basis of the evidence presented in our two consultations and following careful consideration of consultation responses we consider that it is appropriate to proceed with our proposals for NGTR, which represent a proportionate means of securing equivalence of access for hearing and/or speech impaired end users, as required by the Universal Service Directive.

1.9 Alongside the implementation of NGTR, we will continue to work with industry and disability stakeholders to explore the potential impact of speech recognition technology on the accuracy and speeds of the NGTR service. At the present time, however, we have decided not to require the use of speech recognition technology as part of NGTR.

1.10 In addition, we will be continuing our review of relay services by examining the case for introducing requirements on communications providers to provide access to video relay services for users of British Sign Language. This includes working with government and disability stakeholders on DCMSs initiative to encourage the voluntary provision of video relay services by communications providers and businesses.