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Universal Service: What is it and is it important?

What is it?

The Office of Telecommunications (Oftel) currently defines Universal Service as "affordable access to basic Tele-communication services for all those reasonably requesting it regardless of where they live".

What this means is that wherever you live you will expect to be able to have a telephone installed at a cost that is no greater, in general, than anyone else. It also means that, in principle, people with disabilities should be able to have access to the telephone in the same way as people without disabilities.

Is it important?

It is very important as the outcome of current discussions will shape the availability of basic telecommunication services for everyone and particularly for disabled people for years to come. The UK leads Europe on this matter but the same discussions are going on in the European Commission, and Directives will follow which will effect everyone in the UK. Your views on the Oftel Consultative Document are urgently needed and should be addressed to Oftel.

The Oftel Consultative Document

Oftel have issued a Consultative Document on "Universal Telecommunication Services" which is aiming to establish the regulatory framework for Universal Service from 1997. This document has a deadline for comments of 28th February with a further period up to 14th March for additions to initial comments. Copies can be obtained from Oftel, 50 Ludgate Hill, London EC4M 7JJ (Tel: +44 20 7634 8700; Fax: +44 20 7634 8943).

An outline of the main Oftel proposals are given below with the concerns of the COST 219 UK Liaison Group in italics:

1. Oftel Policy Principles

The last principle causes concern to COST 219 as it is clear from this that it does not imply, for Oftel, the equal access that geographic accessibility states.

2. Level of "basic" service would depend on the class or group under consideration. Oftel considers two groups ie "all UK consumers" and "people with profound hearing loss and other consumers with serious communication difficulties". An additional group, subject to further discussions are "educational establishments" for the provision of "Education Superhighway Services".

COST 219 fully supports the development of services for deaf and speech impaired people but considers that this is far too narrow a view of the problem and will lead to the lack of development of new services for disabled and elderly people. COST 219 does not consider that "Education Superhighway" should be a matter for Universal Service and represents a set of "wants" which will have higher priority than the "needs" of disabled people.

3. The proposed Oftel definition of "basic telecommunication services" is "individual access to telecommunications network via switches capable of providing voice Telephony; free services of itemised billing and selective call barring; outgoing calls barred for residential customers as an alternative to disconnection for existing debt; and reasonable access to public call box services".

COST 219 supports the above definition with the proviso that modifications are made to include means of access by disabled people.

4. Oftel is proposing greater flexibility in methods of payment for a range of users to encourage more people to be connected to the network.

COST 219 supports the development of a more flexible approach to payment for services.

5. Oftel draws attention to the needs of people with disabilities and proposes "that universal service arrangements … should focus on people with profound hearing loss or serious speech impairment as a current priority".

COST 219 totally supports the need to include and develop services for deaf people but considers that this ignores the needs of very large groups of people with other disabilities.

6. Cost of Universal Service. This is estimated to be between 0 - 0.5% of total telecoms revenue. The costs could be met by a principle of "pay or play", ie operators could either provide their own services or pay to a central fund for the provision of services.

COST 219 supports the principle of "pay or play".

7. The Universal Service Fund. From the income from operators it is proposed that an independent fund be set up to provide services.

COST 219 supports the concept of a Universal Service Fund but is concerned that no indication is given that this fund will provide for the development of services.

What we would like you to do

The COST 219 UK Liaison Group would ask all organisations and individuals who have an interest in telecommunications for disabled and elderly people to obtain a copy of the consultative document and make comments. In this way a clear expression of the views of disabled and elderly people can be presented to Oftel and to the European Commission.

What we will do

The COST 219 UK Liaison Group will submit detailed comments to Oftel. We are proposing to hold a conference later this year on Universal Service to inform people of the outcome of the current consultation and to discuss the implications.



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