Emergency video relay: how it will work

Published: 6 March 2024
Last updated: 6 March 2024

In June 2021, we announced our decision to launch a new emergency video relay service in the UK. There have been several questions, mainly from the telecoms industry, about how the service works. We have answered some of these questions below, and will add to them as necessary.

Emergency video relay enables deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users to contact the emergency services in their first language. It is an addition to the existing means of contacting the emergency services (voice 999, text relay 999 and SMS 999). These services, which are funded by the telecoms sector, are highly valued by the public.

The obligation came into force on 17 June 2022.

Any person who provides:

  • Internet Access Services to End-Users; or
  • Number-based Interpersonal Communications Services, where it is technically feasible to provide an Emergency Video Relay Service to End-Users.

These terms are defined in the General Conditions of Entitlement (PDF, 1003.0 KB).

In our June 2021 statement (PDF, 898.7 KB), we published the wording of new rules requiring emergency video relay to be provided. These rules formed part of the General Conditions of Entitlement (the telecoms regulations in place in the UK).

New General Condition (GC) C5.11 states that Regulated Providers must:

  1. provide or contract to provide an Emergency Video Relay Service which has been approved by Ofcom; and
  2. ensure that any End-User of Internet Access Services or Number-based Interpersonal Communications Services they provide, who communicates in British Sign Language because of their disabilities, can access and use the Emergency Video Relay Service.

GC 5.12 says that, in providing access to and facilitating use of Emergency Video Relay Services under Condition C5.11, Regulated Providers must:

  1. provide the Emergency Video Relay Service free of charge to the End-User;
  2. where technically feasible, apply an incremental price of zero to any data traffic associated with the use of the Emergency Video Relay Service;
  3. ensure measures are taken to protect the confidentiality of communications between End-Users of the Emergency Video Relay Service and the Emergency Organisations;
  4. subject to Condition C3.11, ensure that the Emergency Video Relay Service is available for lawful use by End-Users at all times; and
  5. comply with any directions in respect of the Emergency Video Relay Service which Ofcom may make from time to time.

“Emergency Video Relay Service” means any service which:

  1. for the purposes of requesting and receiving emergency relief from Emergency Organisations, provides British Sign Language translation and relay facilities for emergency communications to be conveyed via video between any End-User and Emergency Organisations;
  2. is capable of being accessed by End-Users of the service from readily available  compatible terminal equipment with video capabilities, including smartphones and  computers or tablets;
  3. provides facilities for access to Emergency Organisations and is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week;
  4. insofar as reasonably practicable, allows for communication between End-Users of the service at speeds equivalent to voice communications;
  5. provides a means of communicating by text in conjunction with video relay.

The obligation on regulated providers is to provide or contract to provide an emergency video relay service that has been approved by Ofcom, and to ensure that any relevant end-users who communicate in BSL because of their disabilities can access and use this service.

BT has agreed to act as wholesaler for emergency video relay. Should a provider contract with BT for an approved emergency video relay service, this should be sufficient to demonstrate compliance with the obligation in General Condition C5.11.

The responsibility for ensuring that the approved service complies with the approval criteria falls solely on the supplier of the approved emergency video relay service contracted by the wholesaler and not on any other party (see paragraph 5.37 of our statement (PDF, 898.7 KB)).

On 27 January 2022, Ofcom approved (PDF, 466.2 KB) Sign Language Interactions’ (SLI) emergency video relay service which regulated providers can use in order to meet these obligations. It is a condition of approval that this service conforms with the requirements in the General Conditions, and meets all the Approval Criteria (set out in Annex 1 of the June 2021 Statement), on an ongoing basis.

SLI has published information for regulated providers stating that it has the ability to set up and supply the service by no later than 17 June 2022 and committing to work closely with regulated providers. It has a dedicated email address for the project team: info@999bsl.co.uk.

SLI has met with a number of regulated providers and trade bodies representing their interests and is holding engagement events.

BT has announced its proposal (PDF, 124.6 KB) to wholesale emergency video relay and provided contact details for the relevant team (see below).

We said in our June 2021 statement (PDF, 898.7 KB) that voice 999 call handling, text relay and emergency SMS were all currently supplied by BT on a wholesale basis in the UK, with providers paying for their customers’ use of these services. We are aware that not all regulated providers have an existing billing relationship with BT, and have ensured that information about BT’s proposal has been shared with trade bodies representing many of these providers.

BT also has a completely separate role as call handling agent for 999 in the UK, including emergency video relay calls from 17 June 2022.

Regulated providers are required to provide emergency video relay free of charge to end users and where technically feasible apply an incremental price of zero to any associated data traffic. For further information on this, please refer to Section 6 of our June 2021 statement (PDF, 898.7 KB).

SLI is required under the Approval Criteria to liaise with regulated providers, including during the design and development phase of the service and/or app, with a view to facilitating zero-rating of data used in connection with the service. Technical meetings to facilitate zero rating are taking place, and Ofcom is currently participating in some of these sessions.

It will be necessary for the emergency video relay app and website to be designed in a way that allows all relevant data to be identified in order for the data to be zero-rated. SLI will make available the necessary information to allow this.

There is an obligation in General Condition C5.6 for regulated providers to take all reasonable steps to widely publicise services for disabled people (see our guide (PDF, 209.7 KB) to publicising these services). Regulated providers will need to take steps to publicise emergency video relay, taking into consideration the appropriate channels for end users.

Ofcom will also be working to publicise the service, collaborating with the voluntary sector. We will publish a BSL video to coincide with the launch date.

Regulated providers will need to ensure that end users are not prevented from being able to use emergency video relay. This is the same wording as in the obligations for text relay.

  • For text relay, checking that the relay prefix can be dialled on your network would be an example of ensuring that end users can access and use this service
  • For emergency video relay, ensuring that the website and app can be accessed (which would be required by net neutrality rules in any case) would be a comparable measure. Internet access providers could also ensure that the emergency video relay website is not blocked by any parental controls, for example.

Emergency video relay covers the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland where some deaf people use Irish Sign Language (ISL). If interpreters are familiar with ISL, they will be free to use it if this benefits a deaf caller in an emergency situation. However, the regulatory obligation only requires the provision of BSL.

ISL uses one-handed fingerspelling. If a caller from Northern Ireland were to use this and couldn’t easily be understood by the interpreter, there is the option of using the text channel on the emergency video relay app and website for things like names and addresses. We consider that the text channel will also be useful for two-handed fingerspellers who are holding a mobile phone in one hand.

It is possible that people may make emergency video relay calls from outside the UK, but the calls will only be able to be connected to UK 999 control rooms. Voice 999 calls are sometimes received from outside the UK, e.g. calls from mobile handsets close to an international border such as Ireland. Such calls are dealt with by UK emergency authorities, so this would be equivalent.

The cost of mobile voice 999 calls is paid by the four mobile network operators (MNOs) with spectrum and recharged to the mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) who use their spectrum. It is likely that MVNOs will be able to pay for emergency video relay in the same way, although this is a matter for industry.

Similarly, many smaller fixed providers resell managed voice and data services and pay for any voice 999 calls via their wholesaler.

We suggest that regulated providers discuss this with the relevant MNO or wholesaler.

Using a train company’s or hotel’s Wi-Fi may require registration. We cannot control how these kinds of private businesses manage their networks. However, we have required emergency video relay to be zero-rated, so users should be able to use their own devices on mobile data for free, without fear of running out of data or being charged extra.

How can I find out more?

You can contact the Ofcom policy team via email at emergencyBSL@ofcom.org.uk

You can contact the BT team via email at 999liaison@bt.com

You can contact Sign Language Interactions via email at info@999bsl.co.uk

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