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Telecommunications Charter - The response

Brian Perrett
June 2001


1 Background

The concept of the PhoneAbility Charter was first mooted early in 1998. Positioned as a statement of aspiration, the suggestion was that adoption of the Charter would create an environment where organisations that signed up would be indicating a willingness to work together towards best practice that would, over time, resolve many of the important tele-communications issues facing older and disabled people.

Early drafts of the Charter sought, inter alia, to promote solutions to three fundamental issues. They are: first, accessibility (of facilities and services) to all; second, the concept of universal design; third, and importantly, the availability and cost of suitable terminal equipment.

The concept of the Charter was discussed with a number of voluntary, governmental and telecommunications industry groups, not just in the UK but across Europe, over a period of some two years. In doing so, it became apparent that while many might accept the principles of the Charter that related to service provision, any mention of potential subsidy of terminal equipment brought discussions to an abrupt halt. It seems that the equipment supply side of the industry is deeply suspicious of any suggestion that they accept responsibility for provisions that they regard as being the province of Government. In short, they perceive subsidy for equipment provision as emphatically a matter for social programmes for government rather than as social overheads for industry.

Consequently, the Charter avoids direct reference to the non-availability and potential subsidised provision of suitable terminal equipment, even though it remains a longer-term objective to persuade industry that one should be included. PhoneAbility argues that, as drafted, the Charter represents the most that could be achieved at this time.

2 The Charter

In summary, the PhoneAbility telecommunications Charter promotes:
- accessibility for all;
- the concept of universal design; and, where this is not possible;
- the provision of auxiliary aids and equipment;
- equivalent pricing of Telecommunications services, with additional costs being met from dedicated funds;
- the benefits of wide consultation on access requirements; and
- effective promotion of products and services for older and disabled people.

These six points represent, at one level, a statement of aspiration that indicates a willingness, by organisations adopting the Charter, to work towards best practice in providing services to elderly and disabled people. At a more practical level, they provide benchmarks against which organisations can evaluate their current position and plan, develop and monitor the effectiveness of their longer-term strategy for disabled people. This was the thrust of the promotional campaign aimed at encouraging organisations to sign up to the Charter. The Charter is reproduced in full in Appendix 1.

3 Legislation and Regulation

Any discussion on the reaction by the telecommunications industry to the PhoneAbility Charter must be viewed in the context of regulatory and legislative developments in recent years.

When the Charter was first discussed, early in 1998, the interests of disabled people were regulated by Parts I and II of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). This position was considerably strengthened by the introduction of Part III of the DDA in October 1999. Consequently, disabled customers now have the right to claim against a provider of goods and services if:

- practices, policies or procedures make it unreasonably difficult for them to use the service;
- reasonable auxiliary aids and services that would enable or assist them to access the service are lacking.

Another positive step for disabled people was taken in the Spring of 2000 with the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), with comparable powers and duties to those of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality.

Additionally, the DTI has introduced a series of regulatory measures, specific to the provision of Telecommunications services to disabled people, that come into force in October 2001. These will ensure the provision of a basic range of services, including:

- regular consultation
- adequate publicity of products and services
- free directory enquiry services, in appropriate formats, for customers who are so disabled as to be unable to use a telephone directory, together with onward call connect
- access to a text relay service
- special tariffs or rebates for textphone users
- availability of telephones incorporating inductive couplers, and amplification
- access to at least one text relay service
- special tariffs or rebates for textphone users
- access to emergency and operator services by textphone users
- a priority fault repair service
- a protected service scheme
- availability of billing and other important information in alternative formats
- reasonable accessibility to Public Call Boxes, with guaranteed numbers of PCBs being equipped with amplification and with textphones.

There can be no doubt that the introduction of all the above measures has had an effect on industry. In particular, the specific requirements placed on the tele-communications industry will, in many instances, require companies to develop a supportive infrastructure and, inevitably, involve them in some additional cost. Add to this the uncertainty as to the nature of the legislative regime that will emerge from the forthcoming Communications Bill and it is perhaps understandable that some companies appear to be focussing more on compliance than on best practice.

PhoneAbility argues that this is a negative, and ultimately cost ineffective, stance. The October 2001 Regulations, while providing some help and assurance to disabled people, are specific and talk about compliance only. In effect, they are quite narrow but, above all, they are backward looking, whereas the PhoneAbility Charter looks to the future. In principle, at least, it covers a wider range of issues and sends a clear signal to customers and competitors that signatories are prepared to go that extra step.

4 Reactions to the Charter

Four distinct groups were invited to sign up to the PhoneAbility Charter:

4.1 Oftel

In a letter dated 14 September 2000 the Director General of Oftel gave his wholehearted support to the Charter, arguing that the pressure on service providers and equipment suppliers to meet the needs of all their customers has to be maintained. In a Foreword to the Charter he went on to say "In endorsing (the six points of the Charter) providers of all types of services and equipment will be taking on a commitment to ensure that the needs of disabled and elderly customers are satisfied in a timely and adequate way".

4.2 Disability Organisations

Of the five major organisations that represent the interest of disabled people, only the RNIB fully endorsed the Charter. The DRC, DIEL (Oftel's Advisory Committee on Disabled and Elderly people), TAG (The tele-communications Action Group) and RNID all supported the aims of the Charter but stopped short of signing up. In each instance, the reason given was that the Charter did not address the question of availability and (subsidised) cost of terminal equipment. None of these organisations accepted the reasons (see Section 1 above) why this issue is not specifically addressed in the Charter. Nor did they accept arguments that, in the absence of specific legislation to resolve this issue, the key to its resolution is to develop a positive dialogue with the telecommunications industry and that signing up to the Charter represented the first step in this process.

4.3 The Federation of the Electronics Industry (FEI)

Disappointingly, the FEI also declined to endorse the Charter and to refer it to their members. No reason was given and, despite active lobbying, none has yet been received.

4.4 Telecommunications Service Providers

In the absence of a positive mandate from both the equipment manufacturers and disability organisations, seventeen companies involved in the supply of fixed and mobile telecommunications services were invited to support the Charter. PhoneAbility's view was, and remains, that if these companies were willing to commit to the principle of best practice, without necessarily committing themselves to specific targets on costs and subsidy, it demonstrated a willingness to work with others that might bring those others to the consultation table.

A copy of the information pack sent to each of these companies is included at Appendix 1.

In the event:

§ Only one company expressed a willingness to sign up. Curiously, that company declined to publicise their commitment.

§ Six companies declined to endorse the Charter. Of these:

- three are business to business providers who, while applauding the aims of the Charter, felt that, because they do not have a consumer base, the Charter was not relevant to them. Indeed, one went so far as to suggest that it would be an empty gesture for them to sign up;

- one (mobile supplier) has an ambitious and developing strategy of service provision for disabled customers, but felt that the timing was perhaps not right, citing, amongst other things, uncertainty about the nature and extent of the legislative regime that will emerge from the Communications Bill.

- one (cable company) felt unable to sign because it is still a young company that has grown by acquisition and is (seemingly) concentrating on internal rationalisation. It is developing a disability strategy but the indications are that this will be restricted to compliance with the October 2001 regulations.

- one (resale company) expressed concerns over the apparent commitment (Clause 4) to provision and subsidy of services and equipment.

§ Nine companies (including some of the major players in the industry) have yet to commit themselves, despite a number of polite reminders. Seven of these companies have, or is developing, a disability strategy - ranging from the exemplary to simple compliance. This notwithstanding, it is clear that attempts to secure sign up to the Charter have stalled. The inevitable conclusions (as stated by some) are that there are some doubts over the perceived level of commitment the Charter is asking for, and that other issues (the problems being experienced by the telecoms sector at present?) have resulted in the Charter being pushed down the priority chain.

One company has ceased trading.

5 Conclusion

In light of the above, PhoneAbility reluctantly concedes that, for quite different reasons, the Telecommunications Charter is unacceptable to the both the voluntary organisations and the telecommunications industry. The voluntary organisations because it does not include a commitment to provision and subsidy of terminal equipment, and the tele-communications industry because they are suspicious that too high a level of commitment is being sought on the provision and funding of special services.

6 The Way Forward

PhoneAbility suggests that this dichotomy can only be resolved by regulation. In the unlikely event that legislation is introduced that places some responsibility on equipment manufacturers, the only realistic solution must be via a Universal Service levy on service providers. This raises a host of other issues and PhoneAbility is already seeking discussions with Oftel as part of the Universal Service review that is currently under way.

This notwithstanding, PhoneAbility believes that consultation between the tele-communications industry and disabled people must continue. Although stronger regulation is undoubtedly needed, best practice must always be the aim. Key to this is a mutual understanding of the issues faced by both sides. To facilitate this, PhoneAbility proposes to broker the formation of a Telecommunications Industry Forum on Disability and Ageing where key players in the industry can discuss mutually beneficial solutions to issues affecting their disabled customers.

PhoneAbility has been arguing the need for such a Forum for some time and, in recent months, the idea has received support from several key players in the telecommunications industry. Essentially, industry wants the Forum to be a place where solutions to non-competitive issues can be discussed. Disabled people, on the other hand, will want to widen that debate to include competitive issues and this will be made clear from the outset. Also, industry will probably want to talk about a common approach to issues that affect all disabled people, perhaps even to discuss issues where the interests of one group of disabled people might conflict with those of others. While this is accepted, it is vital that there is also room for individual organisations to raise issues specific to the disability they represent.

PhoneAbility will be writing to key players in the industry by mid July, inviting them to an initial meeting early in September at which the needs and expectations of both sides will be discussed and a set of ground rules developed under which the Forum will work. In doing so, it is vital that the Forum is positioned as an impartial and independent body, and that its activities are conducted in the light of co-ordinated input from the organisations that represent older and disabled people. Additionally, it is important that, in forming the Industry Forum, we do not give the impression that it will become a giant pressure group. The key word must be dialogue, not diatribe.

Appendix 1

Information pack sent to companies invited to sign up to the PhoneAbility Charter.

A Telecommunications Charter

On behalf of PhoneAbility, the UK action group that champions Telecommunications and the needs of older and disabled people, I would like to invite Company X to sign up to a Telecommunications Charter.

The Charter is a clear statement of aspiration. By signing up to it, Company X will be indicating a willingness to work towards best practice in providing services for disabled people.

I believe that Company X will benefit from adopting this Charter. The PR and emotive arguments for doing so are undoubted and the business case is overwhelming. The UK has 8.5 million disabled people who, with their families and friend, have an annual spending power of £45 - £50 billion. Clearly, this is an important market. Moreover, meeting the needs of disabled people does not necessarily involve advanced technology and high cost. Experience shows that many adjustments cost little or nothing, particularly if considered at the design stage.

Additionally, recent legislation and regulation will oblige Telecommunications operators to become active in the disability arena and you will wish to maximise the undoubted PR opportunities this can bring. Signing up to the Charter will be the first step in this process.

If you were happy to sign up, I would like to arrange a photo opportunity to gain early publicity and to use when the Charter is formally launched in the Spring.

A copy of the Charter and some supporting information is enclosed. Perhaps, when you have had time to read it, I could call you to discuss things further?

I look forward to talking to you soon. In the meantime, if you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

The PhoneAbility Telecommunications Charter

A statement of aspiration

1. Telecommunication facilities and services should be accessible to all.

2. The needs of older people and people with disabilities should be taken into account in the design of any new Telecommunication equipment or service. Terminal equipment should be designed for the widest possible market. Network services should adequately support relevant special terminal functions so that all users experience equivalent end-to-end service.

3. Where inclusive design is not possible, provision should be made for people with disabilities to access the service by means of additional equipment and services.

4. People with disabilities should, as far as possible, be able to use telecommunication services at prices equivalent to those without disabilities. Most of the additional costs of providing access to all should be met by dedicated funds or absorbed within general operating costs.

5. Providers of telecommunication equipment and services and regulatory authorities should consult regularly with disabled and older users about their access requirements and take appropriate action. Equally, organisations representing older people and people with disabilities should be prepared to contribute their knowledge and experience.

6. Telecommunication products and services that improve and increase access for older and disabled people should be actively advertised and promoted, with information also available in accessible formats.

An invitation to adopt the PhoneAbility Telecommunications Charter

Providers of telecommunications services and equipment, Regulators, Government Departments and User Organisations are invited by PhoneAbility to adopt a Telecommunications Charter.

The PhoneAbility Telecommunications Charter is a statement of aspiration. It has the personal support of the Director General, Oftel, and of a number of major organisations that represent the interests of disabled people. By adopting the Charter, organisations will indicate a willingness, over time, to work towards best practice in providing services to disabled people and an intention to comply with current legislation and regulation.

Telecommunications services play a fundamental and increasing role in social and business life and it is vital that they are accessible to all. Disabled and older people, their families and friends, are a large and growing segment of consumers who are ready and waiting to buy such services. With an annual spending power of £45b - £50 billion, they are not a niche market. Moreover, the principle of inclusive design will ensure that features that make products and services accessible to older and disabled people make those same products and services easier for everyone to use. Many adjustments for disabled people cost little or nothing, particularly if considered at the design stage.

Disability and old age need not result in exclusion if appropriate provision is made. In the UK, the Disability Discrimination Act gives a legislative basis for such provision and this is supported by the Telecommunications (Services for Disabled Persons) Regulations, introduced in October 2000 and which are applicable to all fixed Telecommunications operators, cable companies and payphone operators. Public support for the Charter will be an important element in demonstrating to consumers an intention of meeting, perhaps even exceeding, these requirements.

We are all of us less able at some time in our lives; disability is the one minority group we can all join, overnight.

About PhoneAbility

PhoneAbility is the independent UK focal point for telecommunications and the needs of disabled and elderly people. With a membership of acknowledged experts from within the industry, government and the voluntary organisations, it acts as a catalyst in this area by organising conferences and exhibitions on telecommunications and disability, producing a Newsletter and a series of information sheets, and by encouraging and participating in consultation on developing legislation and regulation.

PhoneAbility also acts as the UK reference group to an important European project group (COST 219) charged with increasing the availability of telecommunications services and equipment so that they are accessible to disabled and elderly people; with promoting the concept of inclusive design and, where this cannot be achieved, with arguing the case for the availability of appropriate supplementary services. The Group also promotes research aimed at proposing solutions to the needs of elderly and disabled people in providing access to new telecommunications services. The Governments of 18 European countries have signed the Memorandum of Understanding to join this project group.

 

 



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