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The Use of Wireless Technologies by People with Disabilities: A European Perspective

Dr. John Gill
May 2004

Geographical Europe has a population of about 800 million. At the beginning of May 2004 the European Union enlarged from 15 to 25 countries - an expansion from 385 million to about 460 million people. Although, in some areas the European Union acts as a single entity, the provision of telecommunication services for disabled customers is largely determined at national level.

Historically Europe was dominated by state-owned national telecommunication operators who charged high prices, provided terminals for rent, provided some special services (eg text relay services) and undertook research in new terminals and services for disabled customers. Most of these national operators have now been privatised, but they are often the dominant providers for fixed line services. At the same time regulation has been significantly reduced. One result has been a dramatic reduction in research and development for disabled customers by the fixed line operators.

In the last decade there have been major changes on the usage of mobile phones. The most significant change was from analogue to GSM (global system for mobile communications) digital phones. The GSM standard was developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and is now used by more than 1 billion people in over 200 countries. This corresponds to about 73% of the world's total digital wireless market. There are now more GSM phones than televisions and personal computers together in the world.

The short message service, often referred to as 'text messaging', has proved very popular with over 20 billion text messages sent last year in the UK. Only recently have handsets become available with speech output of text messages and other functions to help blind users.

Since the number of mobile phone subscribers now exceeds the number of fixed line subscribers, most of the financial investment is going into the mobile area. Mobile phones, in Europe, frequently incorporate GPRS (general packet radio service) which is 'always on' and provides data rates of up to 115 kbit/s. However third generation networks and terminals are now being introduced in a number of European countries. Third generation can deliver data rates of up to 2 megabit/s, but in practice significantly lower rates are the norm.

The introduction of third generation networks in the UK will involve the installation of 100,000 new antennas, so the investment is not insignificant particularly taking into account the initial licence fees of $40 billion. Third generation systems can provide information about the location of the user so there is the potential for contextual communication. For instance a network service could provide information about the times of buses in your immediate vicinity.

For disabled users, third generation systems offer the potential of providing remote sign language interpretation services or remote location and guidance services for blind or intellectually impaired travellers. What is not known is what price the operators will charge in order to get an appropriate return on their financial investment. There is no legal requirement for the operators to provide affordable services to disabled users.

European Projects
There are a large number of projects in Europe to enable disabled people to benefit from these developments in mobile communications. It is not possible to list all the projects, so just three projects will be mentioned.

ETSI are working on the concept of a universal communications identifier which identifies the user and not the terminal or service. This means that a user would have a single number or name irrespective of whether it is a phone, fax or email terminal. To achieve this the network would incorporate a personal user agent which knows all the user's communication services as well as personal preferences for access, filtering and redirection. In addition it would be able to automatically invoke network services (eg text or video relay services) and automatically switch to the appropriate media for the individual user. A significant aspect of this major development is that the needs of disabled users are being considered from the outset.

Another project is Ask-It which is developing an extended ambient intelligence space for the integration of functions and services for elderly and disabled people across various environments. The system will interact with the user using natural interfaces like speech, touch and gestures as well as intuitive semantics. It will also model the user behaviour and build a profile of user's preferences based on his or her interactions; for instance it could take into account the type of wheelchair being used. In addition it will handle security aspects to ensure the privacy and security of personal data. The European Commission has contributed $10 million towards this ambitious project which involves 45 partners.

Finally the COST 219ter action on accessibility for all to services and terminals to next generation networks involves 17 countries. This action aims to coordinate and stimulate rather than undertake research. Their current activities involve adapting scenarios relating ambient intelligence to involve disabled users. They are also developing a database of existing schemes and resources for testing for accessibility, and identifying the most appropriate test procedures for different situations.

The use of wireless technologies by people with disabilities in Europe has evolved differently from those in north America. The reasons have been partly historical, partly the market penetration of GSM systems, and partly the different regulatory framework.


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