Communications services are important for all citizens, including disabled people who can face particular difficulties when using them. Under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom is required to have regard to the needs of older and disabled people.
To make communications more accessible to those with hearing and speech difficulties, Ofcom is required by the Universal Service Directive and the Universal Service Order 2003, to mandate the provision of text relay services for the purposes of ensuring equivalent access to communications services for such users. Ofcom has imposed both Universal Service Conditions on BT and General Conditions on all communications providers to ensure that all disabled users are able to access the text relay service, regardless of their choice of provider. BT currently provides the Text Relay service to comply with its obligations to both its own customers and to enable other communications providers to comply with their own obligations.
In recent years, a number of changes have occurred both in respect of the regulatory framework applicable and advances in technology which have caused Ofcom to reassess whether the existing mandated services remain appropriate.
As regards the regulatory framework, the Universal Service Directive has recently been amended and Government is currently consulting on proposed changes to the Universal Service Order 2003 in order to implement those changes. Ofcom will need to consider whether these changes require amendments to the Universal Service Conditions and General Conditions which apply as a result.
Alongside changes in the international arena and regulatory framework, the technological environment has also changed since the text relay service was developed in the 1980s and the way we use technology is also changing. There have been many technological advances, both mainstream and more specialised, that would appear to offer significant benefits to hearing and speech-impaired users and are worthy of exploration. These include, for instance, IP technology, SMS, email, video over broadband, voice recognition and captioned telephony.
As a result of both the regulatory and technological changes outlined above Ofcom is reviewing the current implementation of relay services. Our review will assess whether the current arrangements for the provision of relay services are adequate in delivering equivalence to voice telephony for hearing- and speech-impaired end-users. We will consult on our analysis and proposals in spring this year.
As part of our review we commissioned Opinion Leader, an independent market research agency, to conduct research into the telecommunications needs of people with hearing and speech impairments. This research is valuable in helping us understand, amongst other things, how well the current text relay service meets the needs of those with hearing and speech impairments, the extent and nature of any gaps in achieving equivalence to voice telephony, and attitudes to additional relay services. The research also incorporates the views of those without hearing and speech difficulties to ensure that we are aware of the needs and experiences of all parties that use relay services to communicate.
Ofcom is publishing this research in advance of the publication of a consultation document on these issues in order to stimulate debate and to allow stakeholders to have sight of a key part of the review at an early stage. We intend to publish a full consultation document in spring 2011 and look forward to receiving stakeholder responses to our proposals at that time.