New measures that would see significant improvements to telephone “relay” services for people with hearing and speech impairments have been proposed by the industry regulator Ofcom.
Among proposals it is now consulting on, Ofcom wants to introduce a duty on providers to ensure access to a “next generation” text relay service, at a likely cost of less than £16 million a year.
It also wants communications providers to offer access to a new video relay service for users of British Sign Language (BSL).
Video relay services are currently only available commercially, and mainly funded through the government’s Access to Work scheme.
Because such a service could cost more than £100 million a year – if demand was high – due to the need for trained interpreters, Ofcom has proposed restricting the video relay service to certain times of the day, or giving users a monthly allocation of minutes.
If the two proposals are confirmed following the consultation, Ofcom would update the legal duties already imposed on communications providers such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk.
Text relay involves an assistant converting typed messages into speech and then converting the spoken response back into typed words.
There is currently only one widely-available national text relay service – operated by BT but available to customers of all service-providers – but it uses technology that is 30 years old and has been described by campaigners as “slow and cumbersome”.
Many BSL-users find the text relay service difficult to use. Video relay services allow them to communicate in their first language, BSL, and enjoy conversations that are “quicker and more fluid” than those using text relay.
Ofcom research found deaf and speech-impaired people still believed text relay played “an important role” in ensuring they could communicate on an “equivalent basis” to voice telephone calls.
But they criticised the BT service for slow conversation speeds, the lack of privacy, and the inability to express or detect emotion, or to be used with equipment such as personal computers and netbooks.
Among suggested features of the next generation text relay service, Ofcom wants users to be able to interrupt during a conversation through the use of “live captions”, instead of having to wait until the end of a message.
The consultation ends on 20 October 2011.