The new service has been developed and launched by BT – which is the first provider to gain approval from the communications watchdog Ofcom for a “next generation” text relay service – but is available to customers of all the UK’s other landline and mobile phone providers.
The Next Generation Text Service (NGTS) aims to provide long-awaited improvements to the text relay service, which has been allowing people with hearing or speech impairments to communicate over the telephone for more than 20 years.
Under the text relay system, an assistant in a call centre acts as an intermediary to convert speech to text, and text into speech, for the two people in conversation.
The launch follows a decision by Ofcom in 2012 that there must be an improved text relay service in the UK, to allow “more natural conversations and easier access on a wider range of mainstream devices”, such as laptops, tablet computers and smartphones.
The new service allows interruptions for the first time, because it permits the user to hear the other person’s voice and read the text of their conversation at the same time, without the need to say or type “go ahead” after each part of a conversation.
Ofcom said the conversation “flows much more quickly and naturally as a result”.
Among other improvements, users will no longer have to use a textphone – costing about £300 – to make a call, with the option to access the service instead on smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.
And relay users can now link their landline and mobile number to a TextNumber, a standard 11-digit phone number that will automatically bring the relay service into every call, so eradicating the need to dial the 18002 prefix before every telephone number and even to know in advance that the recipient of the call is a text relay-user.
Users of the relay service will continue to be charged at the same rate as a standard telephone call, while disabled users are entitled to a price reduction because of the additional time taken by relay calls.
Christopher Jones, chair of UK Council on Deafness’s deaf access to communication group, said there was little difference in speed between the old and new generation systems for those typing and receiving text.
But he said that being able to use computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones, and make and receive calls when away from home, would make a “real difference”.
And for those who use voice carry over (VCO) technology – which allows users to speak using their own voice but read the responses in text – the new system will be “much smoother and less cumbersome”, said Jones.
VCO-users previously had to keep switching between voice and text modes, and so could not interrupt the other person.
But NGTS enables a VCO-user to talk and interrupt, making the system “faster and smoother compared to the old text relay”, although the speed of the text part will still be subject to the typing speed of the relay assistant.
Jones said there were still “teething issues”, as with all new technologies, particularly around downloading the NGTS mobile phone app and linking it with a chosen telephone number or numbers.
He said: “Once this is done, things seem to run fine.”
He said these problems could possibly be solved by “better instructions, perhaps more graphical or even video clips of the steps required”.
Disabled campaigner Chris Channon, who currently uses email to contact people and organisations because of his communication impairment, said NGTS would “come in really useful for ‘real-time’ interaction”.
He said his initial reaction when heard of the new service was “hooray!”.
He said: “I never used the previous text relay service, as it relied on personal computers or specific non-portable keyboards and 11 digit numbers.
“NGTS addresses both these issues as it can be used on mobile devices via a free app with text relay numbers being linked to an individual’s mobile number.
“If it does what it says on the tin then I will definitely be signing up to NGTS in the very near future.”
Mike Aston, a senior architectural technologist with Warwickshire County Council, who has been taking part in BT’s trials of NGTS, said the new system had “really exceeded my expectations and certainly makes life a lot easier for deaf people”.
He praised its flexibility, and said he believed the new service “certainly enhances employment prospects for the deaf in the future”.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said: “The enhanced service delivers real improvements to the text relay experience, allowing users to have conversations more easily and fluently.
“We’ll monitor the performance of the new service to ensure it meets our expected standards.”
The launch had been due in April but was delayed after BT’s testing revealed technical problems relating to the connection of emergency calls.
Ofcom is investigating the reasons for this delay and expects to publish its conclusions later this year.
9 October 2014