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Ofcom outlines accessibility benefits of superfast networks

Next-gen net could help elderly and disabled

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Superfast broadband networks could improve access to technologies and information for elderly people and people with disabilities, a study carried out for telecoms and media regulator Ofcom has found.

High capacity broadband internet access created by so-called next generation networks could make it easier to access enabling technologies and could ease access to increasingly personalised media and information services, the study (pdf) said.

Ofcom's Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled people (ACOD) commissioned i2 Media Research to identify the effects next generation services will have on the elderly and people with disabilities and their access to information services.

"In the future, there is likely to be more personalised access to information and services, meaning that people who previously faced exclusion from services because of difficulties in accessing them (e.g. mobility difficulties, inability to receive information in a format that meets their needs) could find their routes to access easier," said the report.

"Alternative formats (text, video, speech) could be easier to access anywhere and anytime," the report said. "This is likely to be enabled through increased availability of (accessibility) software as a service, higher capacity, faster bandwidths, improved interoperability and better online multi-modal web design (encouraged through the promotion of digital inclusion)."

Users with disabilities often have particular settings via which they can use media devices or computers. The report said that next generation networks could remember those settings for users or even learn them based on the way a user interacts with media content.

"Personal access preferences (e.g. personally optimised colour contrast, font size, speech qualities), which are either specified by the user or inferred (learned, based on user behaviour) by the system, are more likely to be stored by the network or accessed from the network through a type of electronic identity card (e.g. smart card) compatible with a number of systems (e.g. cash machines, personal computers)," said the report.

The report also said that the development of television sets so that they increasingly access internet content will help people who find it difficult to use computers.

The report warned, though, that the benefits to disabled people of next generation technologies may never materialise. Network operators and content creators must ensure that the material they create and connect to is designed to be accessible.

"The benefits outlined above cannot, however, be taken for granted because there are substantial risks, challenges and barriers to the effective implementation of NGS (next generation services)," the report said. "There is a need for internationally coordinated work to support the development of NGS and products that are accessible and easy to use for people with a wide range of abilities."

The report said that product and service designers must be aware of accessibility issues; that regulators must ensure that systems are developed in an accessible way; and that standards are used to ensure the interoperability of systems.

The report said that if superfast broadband services did achieve their potential, they could improve the ability of older people or those with disabilities to live independent lives.

"The benefit of improved access could hold particular benefits to older and disabled people through greater inclusion and opportunities to participate in a broad range of activities," it said. "Through NGS, with improved accessibility to more information, the activities to which the services relate (e.g. to government, commerce or health) could become more transparent, enabling service users to be better informed and more independent."

"Now that we are all going to be working for longer, and there is a desire to tackle worklessness and encourage the economically inactive to become economically active once more, technology can help people who are often at the periphery of our society – such as disabled or older people – to play a more active role in the economy and in their local communities," said Jo Connell, chair of the Ofcom advisory committee which commissioned the research.

"It can also play a role in helping people remain independent, living in their own home, for longer. For younger disabled people it can play a key role in ensuring their lives are as diverse and media-rich as their non‐disabled peers. Text messaging has revolutionised the lives of young deaf people on the move in the past decade. Next generation broadband has the potential to deliver the same impact in the home," she wrote.

"ACOD encourages industry to look at the examples in this document and consider the potential for their wider deployment, so that everyone can benefit from next generation broadband," said Connell.

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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