Cellcos failing deaf people, says charity

Ofcom urged to bring about change

Ofcom has come under fire from the RNID - the charity which represents nine million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK - for failing to enforce legislation that would improve the lives of disabled people.

As a result, the charity claims, deaf and hard of hearing people are being treated like second-class citizens and are being excluded from mobile services.

In 2003, a series of obligations called General Conditions of Entitlement were introduced and applied to "anyone who provides an electronic communication service or an electronic communications network". As part of General Condition 15 (GC15), telcos (and for the first time cellcos) had to offer mobile access to text relay services such as RNID Typetalk, the UK text-to-voice relay service for deaf people.

Typetalk allows people to communicate via a phone using trained operators to act as a go-between hearing and deaf people. A deaf person taps out their message on a textphone (a phone with a built-in keyboard) and the text is then read aloud by the operator to a hearing person. In return, the operator will convert any voice reply into text that can be read by the deaf person on a textphone.

Typetalk handles more than 35,000 calls a week, which the RNID says illustrates just how vital this service is for many people. Yet, the charity maintains that the failure of mobile companies to comply with the GC15 legislation means that deaf people are unable to use Typetalk via their mobiles.

According to Ofcom, Vodafone, Orange (and more recently O2) are already offering a service.

As for the others, T-Mobile says it believes that it is "compliant with General Condition 15, except in the provision of real-time text/voice calls" and expects to unveil its solution by the end of the year. Ofcom is currently "in dialogue" with 3 at the moment. A spokesman for the regulator said the 3G operator was experiencing "teething troubles" and that no concrete date has as yet been set for when its service will become available.

According to the RNID (The Royal National Institute for Deaf People), only one operator - Vodafone - currently has a system in place which is of any real practical benefit for people with hearing problems. Vodafone's service is based on a Nokia Communicator 9210i which includes a built-in keyboard. Orange's answer is plug a portable textphone into an existing handset to make calls. O2 also looking to promote a similar system but it has yet to begin publicising the service on its web site.

However, the RNID is critical of this approach since it means deaf people have to carry around two devices if they want to make calls. The charity maintains this is as "silly as asking a hearing person to carry around a desktop phone" to plug into their mobile.

Said Guido Gybels, Director of New Technologies at RNID: "In a world where the ability to communicate effectively is so important to participate as a citizen, the failure of these mobile companies to offer real, usable mobile solutions that would make a real difference to people with a profound hearing loss, is appalling. Technical solutions that are economically feasible have been around for years, yet most operators simply refuse to implement them. Vodafone is the only operator offering a mobile textphone. All operators should follow the Vodafone example and we also urge Ofcom to use their influence to bring about change, so that textphone users can become fully enabled UK citizens."

Orange defended its position, insisting that it's considered the different technical options on offer and has concluded that its approach makes the most sense.

"The solution offered by Orange requires two pieces of equipment to make a Textphone call," said a spokeswoman. "We believe that this offers customers the maximum possible flexibility by allowing them to carry a single small mobile device for sending text messages, (and email on some Orange devices, such as the SPV) etc., whilst also retaining a keyboard that is large enough to be able to easily hold a Textphone conversation.

"Whilst we investigated stand alone mobile devices, we concluded that the vast majority of mobile devices had keyboards which were too small for a Textphone call of any significant duration. Should an alternative device become available at some point in the future which meets our customers' needs better, we will be happy to investigate such alternatives if there is sufficient commercial demand."

But this fails to impress Gybels: "It is perfectly feasible to offer mobile text telephony on current handsets and with current networks. The real issue is that operators are not prepared to spend even one penny on something they see as a burden, not an opportunity.

"What annoys me and many others is this patronising tone of some other operators. It is not up to them to tell deaf people what deaf people need. Deaf people want to be as mobile in their communications as hearing people are.

"Telling them to carry around a desktop textphone is as silly as asking a hearing person to carry around a desktop phone. There are several handsets around that offer excellent keyboards for text communication while on the move and there are proper mobile keyboards to connect to them, like Bluetooth foldable keyboards or even one that project a full keyboard on a flat surface and is no bigger than a cigarette lighter."

For its part, Ofcom argues that while there is a specific requirement for mobile operators to offer access to text relay services, operators are facing technical challenges.

"We're continuing to talk to operators and work with them as quickly as is possible," he said.

Sponsored: Designing and building an open ITOA architecture