Deaf News: Ofcom could fine BT over Next Generation Text Relay delay

Posted on June 18, 2014



BT has been warned by the communications regulator Ofcom that it could be financially penalised for a delay in making available a new telephone service for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Next Generation Text Relay, which is designed to utilise modern digital technology, was due to be operational by April 18th this year but BT say that there is no new date for its launch. Final testing revealed problems with the way Next Generation Text Relay handled emergency calls that BT say could have put users in danger.

It was due to replace a twenty-year-old service called Text Relay that enables deaf people and people with speech impairments to make and receive calls. Text Relay uses telephone operators to either type or speak parts of the call that cannot otherwise be heard or understood enabling people to make or receive calls where it otherwise would be difficult or impossible.

That system had become outdated following advancements in mobile and digital technology. Text Relay could usually only be used with equipment, usually a keyboard or screen, connected to a home telephone line and users needed to add a five digit prefix to telephone numbers to make or receive calls. A computerised version enabling people to use the system on their home computers closed down last year.

Those longer numbers created problems because online forms often would not be able to take the extended telephone numbers and calls made from home using the prefix would often not count as local or free calls on home telephone call packages.

The new system would still make use of relay operators but do away with the additional numbers and be accessible from smart phone apps, computers and tablets, allowing deaf and speech impaired people, for the first time, to easily make and receive calls away from home.

Lidia Best is the Chairperson of the National Association of Deafened People, a charity that represent people who have become deaf after initially being able to hear.

NADP Chair Lidia Smolarek-Best

NADP Chair Lidia Best

“NADP is very disappointed with the delay and the breach of OFCOM deadline. We hope that the right attention is now given to resolve the issues and people, both deafened and hard of hearing people, and those who want to get in touch with them, will be able to benefit from the improved service.”

When that service will be available is still unknown. BT has a statutory obligation to make the public telephone service network available to people with disabilities and is supported in this by other telephone service providers but they have not been able to provide a new date for when the new service will be available.

An Ofcom spokesperson said: “We are also investigating the circumstances behind the delay to determine whether there has been any breach of General Condition 15.5 (the date of launch). A breach of the regulations could lead to sanctions which could include financial penalties.”

“Ofcom was very disappointed that the next generation text relay service, developed by BT, was not launched in time to meet the long-standing deadline of 18th April.

“BT informed Ofcom that its testing of the new service revealed technical problems relating to the connection of emergency calls. Access to emergency calls is a critical factor underpinning Ofcom’s approval of any next generation text relay service.

“We are working to ensure that BT, with any necessary co-operation from the rest of industry, does what is needed to deliver a fully operational service as soon as possible.

If any penalties are levied on BT then they could be up to 10% of the BT’s turnover but depend on the harm or disruption caused to users. If any fine is eventually imposed, it is unlikely to be anywhere near that figure.

A spokesperson from BT said:

“BT apologises to customers for the delay in the launch of the Next Generation Text (NGT) Relay. We had to take the regrettable decision to postpone the launch of the service, for people with hearing and speech impairments, because of a safety issue.

“Testing of the new NGT service revealed a problem with the quality of emergency calls that could have put users at risk. We have therefore postponed the launch of the new app until we have resolved this important issue.

“BT is committed to improving text relay, which it has run for more than 20 years. The existing service will continue to serve customers until the launch of Next Generation Text Relay, which will offer an easier and more natural way for people with hearing and speech impairments to communicate and will be available via an app for smartphones and tablets.”

By Andy Palmer, Deputy Editor. 

Andy is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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