All landline and mobile phone providers are being forced to develop a new and improved ‘text relay’ service to help people with hearing and speech impairments.

The decision was announced today by Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industry, following a review and consultation with ‘text relay’ users.

The current system requires an assistant to be present with each caller and convert the speech into readable text. While vital for daily communication and promoting independence, Ofcom’s review found that it could be drastically improved.

A number of users said they were “frustrated” by the current system because there is no function for stopping or interrupting a message. As a result, they said it was increasingly difficult to hold conversations in real time and also express or detect any emotion from the other caller.

The speed of conversation is also said to be quite slow at the moment, because callers have to wait and take turns when speaking or typing.

Within the next 18 months, Ofcom has said all landline and mobile phone providers must offer what it describes as a “next generation” text relay service, which includes the following improvements:

  • Parallel two-way speech, which makes use of an internet connection to allow users to interject, instead of having to wait until the end of a message. Conversation flows much more quickly and naturally as a result.
  • A wider range of equipment for accessing the service, including easier use of text relay on the move via mobile phones.

Ofcom said they will also be working with both the communications industry and disability representatives to look at speech recognition technology and in particular, how it can be used to improve the accuracy and speed of future relay services.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom Consumer Group Director, said: “The new text relay service will provide a real improvement on the current telephone experience for hearing and speech impaired customers.

“Technology in this area is still evolving, so Ofcom will continue working to ensure disabled users can access reliable, up-to-date relay services which help them communicate more easily.”

The UK regulator said they were also working with the government and disability groups to encourage the use of video relay services.

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