Having identified certain gaps in its recent 2014 package of measures to ensure equivalence of disabled end-user access, ComReg is now considering requiring all telcos - and not just eircom - to offer a Text Relay Service (“TRS”), and for the service to be extended out to mobile as well as fixed line services. Submissions are invited by 17:00 today, 7 May 2015.
TRS is a service which enables the translation of voice messages into text, which is then sent to an end-user’s phone (either directly or via an operator). Responding to the message operates in the same way, but in reverse. TRS is currently available from eircom as part of the obligations placed on eircom as universal service provider (“USP”). However regulation 17 of the Universal Service Regulations 2011 confers on ComReg the requisite statutory power to require all providers of publicly available telephone services (“PATS”) to comply with specified measures that are designed to ensure equivalence of access to communications for disabled end-users.
Although the eircom TRS is available 24/7 and is free to users, there are certain limitations / technical requirements eg, it is currently only available to fixed line telephone users and the user must have a Minicom device. Industry players have highlighted various deficiencies with Minicom, not least that this type of technology is now somewhat dated and that some of the handsets have been in use since late 80s/early 90s, and do not reflect modern day technological needs.
ComReg is now looking at two main proposals:
- Extending the requirement to offer TRS to all undertakings providing a PATS – and not just eircom.
However, in the event that the TRS requirement is extended to all PATS providers, ComReg’s initial view is that the current TRS rebate scheme would only apply to existing users. The purpose of setting up the current TRS rebate scheme was to take account of the additional time needed to deal with a text telephone call as compared to an ordinary voice call. In order to ensure that disabled end-users are not unfairly prejudiced by the additional time needed to process the call, eircom put in place (and continues to operate) a rebate scheme which provides Minicom users with a rebate of up to 70% on text phone call charges per bill. ComReg’s preliminary view is that users currently availing of the rebate scheme offered by eircom should continue to do so – even after the TRS requirement is extended out to all PATS providers - but going forward, the scheme would be funded by the customer’s own service provider; and
- Extending the scope of the TRS requirement beyond just fixed line services to other types of services on a technology neutral basis (eg, mobile, PC, tablet etc).
This is not the first time that ComReg has looked at offering better services to customers with hearing difficulties. For example, in 2014, ComReg directed all undertakings to adopt a list of various measures aimed at improving accessibility of services for disabled end-users at a wider level (eg, accessible complaints procedures, accessible top-up facilities for pre-paid mobile users, accessible DQ services, accessible billing etc) (ComReg 14/52, D04/14). However, that decision failed to require provision of TRS as a general measure; and although subsequently ComReg included TRS as one of the universal service obligations, this was purely in relation to eircom, the USP, and not more generally to all PATS providers (ComReg 14/70, D09/14).
In terms of cost-benefit analysis of ComReg’s proposal one notable point is that there seems to be a lack of accurate / uniform statistics with certain reports suggesting the number of persons who could benefit from a TRS to be around 100,000 - 120,000 and others suggesting figures equating to roughly 8% of the population. Notwithstanding the absence of clear statistical information, ComReg is keen to point out that even in the event of relatively low figures, it is important that disabled end-users’ rights to access communications are guaranteed. ComReg is also quick to note efforts taken by other national regulatory authorities to secure such rights, including the fact that the UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has already mandated access to an approved Next Generation Text Relay (“NGTR”) service by all communications/PATS providers as part of their General Authorisation Conditions.
In terms of what any new TRS obligation might look like, ComReg has put forward a suggested list of minimum requirements that are intended to achieve true technical and functional equivalence of TRS with other voice services (eg, equivalent speeds as voice services, measures to ensure confidentiality of communications etc). Additionally, ComReg is proposing quality of service (“QoS”) requirements that would set a target of, inter alia, 80% of relay calls to be answered within 20 seconds, 99.9% service availability per calendar month and >98% average voice to text translation accuracy.
Should TRS be required from all providers, ComReg’s preliminary view is that a six month lead in time to implement the relevant technology / technical steps needed to comply would be reasonable. Those active in the industry may have better views on whether such time frame is achievable, and the likely costs associated with offering TRS on a broader basis and across a variety of technological platforms. Given however, that the consultation process is at an early stage and eircom’s obligation to provide TRS (under its USP designation) is due to expire on 30 June 2015, ComReg is considering extending the TRS requirement for eircom a further 12 months.