Ofcom wants a major upgrade to the ‘text relay’ service that telephone companies provide for people with hearing difficulties.
Improvements outlined in a consultation that runs until October would make the service faster and easier to use, with the possible introduction of video technology for sign-language users.
The EU Universal Service Directive requires European member states to ensure that people with disabilities can access voice telephony as easily and cheaply as the rest of the public.
UK communications companies are obliged by the 2003 Communications Act to ensure that ‘text relay’ services are available to all consumers regardless of their choice of telephone provider.
This is usually achieved by making calls from a special textphone, via a human operator who speaks each part of the conversation to the person on the other end of the line and types their reply.
Recent research by Ofcom found that because the pace of conversation relies on the speed of the operator’s typing calls can be slow and fail to flow naturally.
The service was also criticised for not being compatible with mainstream equipment such as PCs and Macs.
Users of British Sign Language – particularly those who have difficulties with written English – also reported finding text relay services hard to use.
Some asserted that the service has not been improved as much as it could have been given advances in technology.
As well as frustration about speed and perceived lack of confidentiality, there was concern about it being impersonal and off-putting to hearing people.
It was claimed that the availability of email, text messaging and Skype have led some who are deaf or have speech difficulties to use text relay less, or stop using it altogether.
Ofcom's proposed modifications would bring the experience of using text relay more in line with equivalent voice communications.
While not eliminating a human intermediary, speech recognition software that has 'learned' the operator's voice would automate the conversion of speech to text.
Another option, simultaneous two-way speech with ‘live captions’ (like TV subtitles), would allow users to interject and remove the need to say “go ahead” after each part of a conversation.
It would also be possible to access services through mainstream consumer devices like PCs and netbooks as well as dedicated textphones.
Plans also include introducing video relay on a restricted basis, although Ofcom says it will carry out a further consultation to establish the details of how this would operate once it has established the basic principle.
The proposals were welcomed by Katherine Phipps, director of communications and technology at charity Action on Hearing Loss, formerly the RNID.
“People with hearing loss need a choice of real-time relay services to access telecom networks in ways which best suits their communication needs,” she said.
“Ofcom’s proposals for a next-generation text relay service could make a real improvement to the flow of conversations for users who are deaf or hard of hearing and, although we welcome the introduction of video relay, we hope that access for people who communicate using British Sign Language will be increased from the current proposed limit of 30 minutes each month.”
See the Text Relay website