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BT fined £800k over disabled access failure

Tuesday, March 17th 2015 by Dean Reilly

Ofcom has fined BT £800,000 for the late delivery of an improved text-to-voice service for customers with hearing or speech impairments.

The fine was imposed after BT failed to meet an agreed deadline to make accessibility improvements and launch an enhanced ‘Next Generation Text Service’ for consumers who are deaf or face issues with their speech.

The service helps users have conversations with others using a combination of speech and text.

The relay-style communication enables people with hearing loss or speech impairments to use a textphone to communicate, with the messages read by an operator to the recipient, with responses typed back to the caller.

Next Generation Text Service technology is accessible on a variety of devices including PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Ofcom informed UK landline and mobile providers in October 2012 that the service must be launched by April 18, 2014.

BT missed the initial deadline after facing a number of technical problems relating to the sound quality of emergency calls. It ultimately launched its Next Generation Text Service on September 24, 2014.

Two months after the April deadline passed, Ofcom triggered an investigation into the cause of the text service delay.

Fair and equal access

The telecoms regulator was informed by BT that the delay was a one-off incident, caused by issues with the sound quality of emergency calls.

Ofcom noted that the issue was not immediately apparent during the development of the text service, and there would have been little financial harm caused to consumers as a result.

Yet the regulator ruled that the provision of an improved text relay service was an important part of ensuring that people with hearing or speech impairments had fair and equal access to phone services.

Ofcom also noted that BT failed to comply with the ruling, missing the 18-month deadline by an additional five months.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said: “The size of the penalty imposed on BT reflects the importance of providing an improved text relay service to its customers with hearing and speech impairments.

“However, BT has invested significantly in launching the new text relay service, which allows users to have conversations more easily and fluently and on new devices. We welcome the fact the service is now operating successfully.”

BT must now pay the £800,000 financial penalty to Ofcom, which will then pass it on to HM Treasury.

Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society, previously told Cable.co.uk that while advances have been made with Text Relay, a previous generation text to voice service run by BT, there was still work to be done.

Ms Daniels said: “The first text relay service was developed back in the 1970s. And the technological solutions like wi-fi, mobile handsets and so on have also been around for a long time. So it’s taken sustained pressure from the deaf organisations to get BT to use mobile devices as a solution.”

Ofcom has published a consumer guide to text relay to explain more about the benefits of the next generation service.

Similarly, BT’s text relay website also provides advice and instructional videos on next generation text relay.

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