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Response to additional questions arising from the APPG meeting on 12 January 2005

Broadcast

1. As the question acknowledges, it is unfortunately impracticable to include abbreviations for access services within the primary listings - an option which we looked at seriously. The fact is that even the titles of programmes are often cut off in these listings. The idea of a separate listings of those programmes with access services being shown 'today' is attractive, but there are a number of stumbling blocks. First, this would require the software underpinning EPGs to be overhauled, which would be a major task for satellite and platform providers. They would need to devise and test the software so that it would operate on each of the many types of set top box (and in the case of cable, networks) that they use. In the case of EPGs in digital terrestrial set top boxes, Ofcom would have no powers to require these changes to be made, and it seems unlikely that manufacturers (who are not bound by the Disability Discrimination Act or the Communications Act) would wish to devote resources this. Second, it would not be practicable to require this unless there were software tags (metadata) for each of the access services. At present, some platforms include some metadata on these access services, but not all, and even the metadata that is included is not always reliable. This is another reason why we are requiring abbreviations on access services to be included with the programme details - so that they can, if necessary, be inserted manually.

2. As this is a regulatory tool Ofcom applies to broadcasters rather than requiring interpretation by consumers, it does not seem to us that the three-level approach creates any complexity for consumers. In fact, it delivers more benefits to those who use access services than if we applied a one-size-fits-all framework. The basic rule is that, if they are to provide access services, broadcasters must be able to meet the assessed cost of the full access service targets applying as at the end of year by spending up to 1% of their total revenues for 2003 (the latest year for which figures were available when the Code was published). That currently applies to 48 channels. But in recognition of the fact that, by spending up to the same ceiling, additional broadcasters could provide useful levels of subtitling, signing and audio description, Ofcom devised two additional levels. Level Two requires broadcasters who can afford to do so to meet 66% of the relevant subtitling target (e.g. 6.7% of non-exempt programming as at the end of year one, and more at the end of years three, five, seven and ten), as well as the full targets for audio description and signing. Those who cannot afford Level Two but can still make a useful contribution are required to meet 33% of the relevant subtitling target (e.g. 3.4% of non-exempt programming as at the end of year one, and more at the end of years three, five, seven and ten) as well as the full targets for audio description and signing, provided that they can do so within the 1% ceiling. As a result of this three Level approach, we have been able to require an additional 22 channels to carry access services.

3. Ofcom has already begun preparatory work for reviewing both the Code on Television Access Services and the ITC standards. We aim to commission some research within the next few months, and to publish one or more consultation papers later this year. We are planning to discuss our research proposals for access services with key stakeholders in the disability sector and broadcasting industry to ensure we are gathering the appropriate evidence to underpin the review of the Code. The intention is to finalise the reviews in time to publish a statement on any changes to the Code and to the standards by the middle of 2006, so that they can be brought into force at the beginning of 2007.

4. Ofcom deals with complaints about television subtitles and sign language interpretation in the same way as it deals with complaints about other aspects of television programmes and other issues that it regulates. Consumers with complaints or feedback may contact Ofcom by using the forms on its website (which now includes a special form for access service complaints), by e-mail, by telephone (including textphone and text relay) or by post. This approach enables Ofcom to scale up its response to issues of particular public concern, and to direct complaints to the relevant expert within Ofcom. As subtitling problems may result from a number of causes, the complaint may be dealt with by one of a number of people. Deaf and hard of hearing people also have questions and complaints across Ofcom's remit, and should expect the same specialist response that hearing people receive. For this reason, we doubt that the suggestion for a dedicated contact point for deaf and hard of hearing people would be beneficial.

5. We are aware that some broadcasters who chose voluntarily to provide significant levels of subtitling on a few channels have chosen to cut that back now that they have to provide subtitling on more channels. But, in aggregate, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of subtitling. While we have encouraged broadcasters to maintain existing levels of subtitling where this exceeds their statutory targets, we can only require compliance with the statutory targets.

6. Ofcom has asked broadcasters to supply quarterly reports on compliance with the targets. The first of these, covering the period from January to March 2005, should be available in April, and we expect to publish the results alongside other quarterly information in the Spring.

7. Ofcom maintains regular contacts with access service providers employing current and new technologies, as well as broadcasters and disability organisations.

As regards the suggestion that Ofcom require subtitlers to be appropriately qualified, Ofcom requires broadcasters to meet the subtitling standards set out in the ITC standards which it took over, and which it will be reviewing later this year. It is the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that the access service providers they use have the appropriate expertise.

8. It is only a few weeks since the requirements for additional subtitling under the new Code came into force, so it is too early to draw any general conclusions. Ofcom will look at the standards applying to sign language-interpreted programmes (as well as problems encountered in meeting existing standards) as part of its review of the ITC's standards later this year. In the meantime, as outlined earlier, viewers who have complaints about standards of subtitling, signing or audio description may contact Ofcom.

As regards the issue of ensuring that the appropriate access service is provided for particular programme (such as those for young children), Ofcom is hosting a round table next month with broadcasters and disability groups to discuss how best the selection and scheduling of programmes with access services can meet the needs of access service users. While we cannot mandate a particular approach, we are encouraging broadcasters to consider the needs of people with visual and hearing impairments when selecting and scheduling programmes with access services.

Telecommunications

1. The Group will be aware that Ofcom has consulted on the implementation of New Voice Services (www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/new_voice/anew_voice/?a=87101) and intends to publish a Statement in the spring of this year. Without pre-empting the conclusions Ofcom is committed to ensuring that as these services are rolled out they do not raise new barriers to accessibility and that deaf people will not be excluded from the new features and services they make possible. Ofcom is facilitating a meeting between the industry group and disability stakeholders to consider how these objectives may be achieved in practice.

The Group will be pleased to know that one mobile provider is collaborating with the RNID to develop a GPRS-based access to the relay service - we believe that the achievement of this project will offer long-term benefits across the board. In our Review of the Universal Service Obligation (www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/uso/) we also encourage BT to develop plans to migrate the relay service onto an IP platform which would bring it into line with new technologies and facilitate access without specialised terminal equipment.

Ofcom is working hard to strike a balance between regulatory intervention where necessary to protect the rights of deaf consumers and our perception that many recent services that have offered deaf people new ways of communicating (SMS, email, instant messaging) have been developed by the market without regulatory intervention and have the additional advantage of catering for deaf people as part of mainstream provision.

2. At present text relay services are available in about a dozen European countries, USA and Australia. We are proud that the UK was a frontrunner in the provision of a relay service which is available around the clock 365 days a year - not the case for all European relay services - and is highly automated, enabling customers to dial directly through to their contacts without the need for operator intervention or prior registration. Alternative video relay services, enabling communications by signing, are available in Sweden and the USA, which also offers a voice-based relay service for people with speaking difficulties.

As far as the UK is concerned we are proposing a feasibility study into the establishment of a video relay service in the current Review of the Universal Service Obligation. We recognise the potential value of a service which would enable BSL users to communicate in their language of choice. However there needs to be a better understanding of some of the practical factors which would have to be taken into account before such a service could be implemented. These include the level of demand for such a service, the costs of satisfying that demand, how those costs would be met, the availability of BSL interpreters as well as the relative merits of alternative technical platforms and corresponding terminal equipment. However the ultimate decision on the provision of a video relay service is a political choice falling on the DTI, which sets the scope for universal service provision in its Electronic Communications (Universal Service) Order (SI 2003 No.1904).

As the scale of service provision increases and the market becomes more dynamic we see the growth of additional assistive services, such as CapTel (which offers realtime subtitling for voice to voice conversations) and video interpretation services. These services have not been imposed by the regulator, but have been voluntarily developed by service providers, generally in response to employers seeking to meet their DDA obligations in the work place.

The question that these services raise is not that of availability - the market has seen to that - but the expense of accessing them outside the work place where the employer is not paying. There is not an easy answer to this - subsiding the use of these services goes beyond what can legitimately be expected from a designated universal service provider such as BT. There needs to be a wide-ranging debate encompassing government, other agencies, the voluntary sector, and providers as to how funding to support affordable access to these services might be made available. The Group will also be aware that we have been consulting on future universal service arrangements in the Strategic Review of Telecommunications Phase 2 consultation document which sets out various funding options.

3. Under the present arrangements set by the DTI's Universal Service Order, Ofcom is not empowered to award contracts to any relay service provider. As the Group will be well aware, BT, as the Designated Universal Service provider, is required to provide funds for a text relay service which has to be approved by Ofcom.

The circumstances in which Ofcom would find itself able to award contracts to competing relay service providers would require a different funding model of USO provision. This happens in the USA where a universal service fund is derived from a levy on individual customers' bills and in Sweden where relay services are funded by central government.

Leaving aside the funding issues Ofcom would also need to consider whether competing relay services offer the most efficient means of provision given the existing size of the market. There are currently an estimated 30,000 relay service users. Competitive provision generally calls for surplus capacity and Ofcom would need to be persuaded that the ensuing consumer advantage outweighs the additional resource needed to fund that extra capacity, given the competing claims on those resources. If the objective is to ensure that the relay service does not lag behind contemporary technologies. An alternative approach would be to oblige the relay service provider to implement specified upgrades.

 


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