Review of relay services - further consultation
1.1 Communications services are important to all citizens. However, people with disabilities can face barriers when using communications services. Although the growth in the availability and use of broadband and mobile data services, particularly email and mobile text messaging, has helped disabled end users to communicate, the ability to make and receive telephone calls remains crucially important in today's society. Users with hearing and/or speech impairments, in particular, can face barriers when accessing voice telephony.
1.2 The importance of access to voice telephony, and the barriers that disabled end users face is recognised at a European level by the Universal Service Directive, which requires EU Member States to take action to secure access to, and affordability of, voice telephony services for end users with disabilities.
1.3 In the UK, the regulatory regime requires fixed and mobile communication providers to provide access for their customers to a text relay service. The text relay service 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 speech to text and text to voice in order to facilitate the call.
1.4 Under the present rules, Universal Service Condition 4 requires BT to fund a text relay service approved by Ofcom for all end users who need to use Textphones because of their disabilities, whether customers of BT or any other communications provider. General Condition 15.3 requires all communications providers, including BT, to provide access to text relay for their customers.
1.5 In July 2011 we consulted on changes to the regulatory regime to introduce improvements to the current text relay service, which we called Next Generation Text Relay (NGTR). Our proposal was that NGTR would provide users with the ability to interrupt conversations, have two-way speech and the ability to benefit from the use of mainstream equipment. As with the current rules, our proposal was that all fixed and mobile communications providers should provide access for their customers to an NGTR service approved by Ofcom. We proposed that the new requirement would be imposed on all communication providers through a modification to GC15 and that provision of relay services would no longer be a requirement of Universal Service Conditions on BT alone.
1.6 The responses to the 2011 Consultation relating to our NGTR proposals raised a number of important and complex issues, to which we have given careful consideration. In the light of those responses, relevant parts of which, for the purposes of this further consultation document, are set out in more detail in this document, we have decided it is necessary to conduct a further consultation on two areas of our proposals:
- Our assessment of the costs to industry and the benefits to disabled end users of implementing our proposals for NGTR, particularly as regards access by mobile providers; and
- The criteria and process by which Ofcom proposes to approve a relay service pursuant to the proposed GC15.5, including the Key Performance Indicators Ofcom considers are appropriate.
1.7 This document sets out, as part of this further consultation, the further technical and costing information that we have commissioned from external consultants, InterConnect Communications (ICC), to support our assessment, together with our views on the implications of the consultation responses for our proposals.
1.8 This information indicates 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, will not be large. BT has confirmed to Ofcom that, if the proposals for NGTR are implemented through a General Condition, it intends to develop an NGTR service and provide a wholesale access service for other communications providers to this service. If it were necessary for other communication providers to set up an NGTR service independently from BT, the information provided by ICC suggests that they would face similar set up costs to those identified for BT.
1.9 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 set out our view that it is appropriate that disabled users have the choice of communications provider, both fixed and mobile, available to the majority of end users and are not limited to voice telephony services from BT (or from fixed-line communications providers). This will allow disabled consumers to benefit from the competitive and dynamic communications market present in the UK, including the benefits of mobile voice telephony.
1.10 This document is therefore an important part of our assessment of why we propose that it is appropriate for access to NGTR services to be provided by all fixed and mobile communications providers. In this regard we have considered further the relevant costs of our proposals for industry and balanced those costs against the importance we place on the benefits to disabled end users of having the ability to access fixed and mobile voice calls and, moreover, the benefits to disabled end users arising from the choice of communication providers. On this basis, we are consulting further on our proposal that it is appropriate to proceed with NGTR and that these proposals are a proportionate means of securing the objectives of the Universal Service Directive. We would welcome stakeholders' views together with any further evidence on these aspects of our proposals.
1.11 In addition, this document sets out for consultation the criteria by which Ofcom proposes to approve bodies offering NGTR services, including the Key Performance Indicators we would expect a relay service to be capable of meeting on an ongoing basis. In the light of the proposed 18 month implementation period for NGTR, we have also set out a timeline for further engagement between Ofcom and industry and would welcome stakeholders' views.
1.12 In respect of both matters they cover, our proposals in this document are based on what we said in the 2011 consultation. So, for example, our proposed approval criteria are those which would apply were we to adopt our proposals for NGTR (which we are still considering in light of the responses to the 2011 Consultation).
1.13 We invite responses to this consultation to reach us by 13 July 2012. We anticipate issuing a final statement on NGTR later this year once we have considered those responses. The statement will summarise responses to this consultation and the 2011 Consultation responses not already summarised in this consultation document.
1.14 This document includes a summary of responses relating to the video relay aspects of the 2011 Consultation but does not contain proposals on video relay. Ofcom plans a consultation on video relay later this year. In the meantime Ofcom is working with government and disability stakeholders on DCMS' initiative to encourage the provision of video relay services by communications providers and businesses.
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