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Restricted Communication?

What should disabled people expect from OFCOM?

Tony Shipley
Dr. John Gill
July 2002


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OFCOM is the proposed title for the regulator that will be established when the UK's new Communications Bill is adopted. It is intended to replace several existing regulatory bodies, in the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors, with a single 'joined-up' regulator for the new era of electronic communication. Unless there are unforeseen interruptions to the Parliamentary timetable, OFCOM could be operational in 2003. It will take over the roles of the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Radio Authority and OFTEL. It will also undertake certain responsibilities for radio spectrum management which are currently exercised by the Secretary of State through DTI and its Agencies. This is a complex re-shaping of broadcasting and telecommunications regulation that will call for very close co-operation between the old bodies and the new if a seamless transfer is to be possible. The draft Communications Bill would seem to imply that some period of shadow working is in prospect, and the vesting of powers in OFCOM will not necessarily happen simultaneously across all of the functions it is to subsume.

The driving force for a single regulator in place of the existing separated bodies is the process of convergence of the electronic media. Telecommunications, Broadcasting and the Internet are no longer mutually exclusive activities that can be treated in isolation. They now overlap to the extent that few, if any, forms of communication are unique to any one of these media. As a result, the anomalies resulting from the historical growth of separated regulation are beginning to show. Similar anomalies are evident with film and video, where comparisons with the other visual arts and inkprint highlight numerous inconsistencies in the regulatory approach. OFCOM will not be empowered to remove all of these inconsistencies, but its rationalising influence is bound to highlight them.

These anomalies are now seen to represent constraints upon both trade and artistic freedom. A piece of work that might encounter regulatory barriers in, for example, free-to-air television, could be released as a video recording with less difficulty, or transmitted by a satellite broadcaster not subject to regulation in the UK. Views on what is, and is not, acceptable in terms of content vary according to national cultures, and to cultures within nations, but the notion that the concept of acceptability should vary from one medium to another is increasingly subject to challenge. Moreover, the ambiguities that result from separated regulation make it more difficult to control 'harmful' content on the Internet, which is notoriously resistant to regulation and often carries the more extreme material that would be rejected by most other networks. Regulation of content is not simply a matter of removing offensive material, however, for it extends to the use of quotas in broadcasting, whether for maintaining a required proportion of locally produced programmes, catering for minority interests or setting targets for the provision of subtitling. All of these issues need to be reviewed, and perhaps rationalised, in the twin contexts of media convergence and the development of electronic communications in European and global frameworks.

The solution to these anomalies is seen to lie in a re-ordering of the regulatory approach. Instead of vertical separation, divided according to the type of medium, there will be horizontal separations between content, transmission and reception. Constraints on what may legally be published will be uniform across the converging electronic media, and very much in line with those applicable in others. Regulation of the transmission networks will apply the same broad principles to fixed, mobile and broadcast carriers, and reception will remain as a largely de-regulated consumer sector in which the public can exercise freedom of choice in their procurement of equipment and their selection of networks on which to use it.

Convergence involves the marriage of technologies which have hitherto been quite separated in the public perception and consequently have gathered about them a baggage of custom and practice which has now lost much of its validity. Telephony and broadcasting had very little in common when the one was exclusively carried on fixed wires and the other used only radio transmissions. That technological exclusivity vanished a long time ago but the service providers continued to manage their businesses according to established tradition. They were encouraged, and even forced, to do so by a regulatory framework that was even more traditionally structured.

A de-regulatory process in Europe began with the dismantling of State telecommunications monopolies. A particular problem was, and still is, that these monopolies owned most of the fixed network infrastructure. Even where their successors in title are obliged to offer access and interconnection to other service providers, the rate of development is still controlled by these 'incumbent operators'. Mobile and cable operators, with control of their own infrastructures, have been able to develop their services much more freely and, in doing so, have pushed at the boundaries of the old-established regulatory approach. The next stage of de-regulation is now about to happen. It is aimed at the broadcasting sector and the counterparts of all the problems encountered in telecommunications de-regulation will be seen to emerge.

De-regulation of telecommunications has been in progress for some 20 years and is not completed yet. The experience gained in this sector will be applied to broadcasting as the new EU Directives come into force over the next two years, but the detail in those Directives derives from the telecommunications sector. Translating it into broadcasting involves a venture into unknown territory. Even if analogue television is left on one side, on the grounds that it may be switched off before the new era is fully with us, the concepts of free access and universal service will have to be developed in a context of user expectation generated by the familiar free-to-air analogue services. The role of the regulator, in such circumstances, will be a crucial and a difficult one.

What the user of services might expect of OFCOM is therefore conjectural to some extent. Where OFCOM fulfils the role of existing regulators dealing with current types of service, setting out reasonable expectations should be straightforward enough. But where OFCOM will have to deal with problems that are as yet unidentified, in situations that are as yet undefined, users cannot know what they should expect. In broadcasting, expectations created in the past may be unrealistic for the future, yet there will be a set of basic principles based upon freedom, fairness and avoidance of extreme offence. These principles may be basic but their interpretation may vary widely across the spectrum of users. Finding a balance will involve much discussion, which user groups must be ready to contribute to. That discussion will be more fruitful if the contributors have had an opportunity to develop their views in advance. This paper attempts to facilitate that process.

OFCOM will have a responsibility to protect the interests of consumers, specifically including consumers with disabilities. Some of the consumer protection measures are set out in European Community law but many are left to national initiative. This is particularly so with the disability issues, where the EU Directives set out a broad duty but it is for national Governments and regulators to decide how this is to be interpreted. As this paper shows, OFCOM will have an enormous task to fulfil and disability considerations are a very small part of this total remit. Therefore, it will be important for disability organisations to persuade OFCOM to view disability in the context of mainstream policies and services. If there is any temptation to sideline disability and to introduce accessibility measures as an afterthought, it needs to be firmly resisted.

OFCOM's powers are set out in the Communications Bill, which addresses many of these issues but not all of them. Some important questions, such as the scope of universal service and the place of state funding in broadcasting, are left within the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State. As far as this present paper is concerned, that division of responsibilities is not taken into account. It seems reasonable to take any issue concerned with accessible electronic communications to OFCOM in the first instance, since that body is presented as the single regulator. Only if OFCOM declares that it has no power to consider the case should it be necessary to take it elsewhere.

In order to see accessibility for disabled people as a mainstream issue, it is vital to have an appreciation of the converging technological picture of electronic communications. This paper incorporates a commentary on the main technological features (in the Appendix) to provide the necessary background for those who are not familiar with it.

Accessible Services

The era of electronic communication and the Information Society will, it is promised, bring universal benefits to all who wish to participate. If this is to happen, the products must be deliverable to - and accessible by - all of those people, without discrimination or barriers. That will require careful planning and analysis by service providers, to ensure that their offerings are genuinely accessible. The term 'accessibility' is used with so many shades of meaning that it is easier to set out the broad principle than to interpret it in practice, and the issue is further complicated as technology develops and so do the expectations of users.

For the purposes of this paper, the term 'accessibility' will be used in the context of the availability of electronic communication services to people who have disabilities of a physical or sensory kind. Many of the people with these disabilities will be elderly, since loss of hearing, vision and dexterity are frequent accompaniments to old age, but others will be very young. Across the group as a whole, there will be just as much youthful eagerness to communicate and to acquire information as in any other cross-section of the population. Other interpretations of 'accessibility' may arise in relation to the content of transmitted material, because of intellectual, cultural or linguistic boundaries, and the whole area will form part of OFCOM's remit. The regulator may be placed in the position of deciding what is necessary and what is reasonable in these contexts. At the limits there are the legal constraints of discrimination legislation, but case law as established in the courts must inevitably lag behind when technologies are fast moving, so it is the regulator who will be in the forefront.

A user with no vision cannot see television, one with no hearing cannot perceive the sound, but neither is necessarily excluded from enjoyment of this type of medium. Audio description and subtitling provide means by which these people can follow the programmes, but the technical availability of these facilities is just the starting point. A cinema audience watching a foreign language film which is subtitled are all participating in the same experience. Apart perhaps from a few who are fluent in the language, the whole of the audience needs the subtitles and puts up with the interference to the visual field as a necessary consequence. Those who prefer not to do so must find a cinema showing a dubbed version. This is not the case when television programmes are subtitled for the benefit of deaf and hard of hearing viewers, or an audio description of the action is transmitted for those who are blind. If accessibility for some is not to mean inconvenience for most, the facility must be available separately, on demand. This means separation of the service, running through all the levels of content provision, transmission and reception.

Although accessibility features of this kind are primarily linked with programme content, the action of maintaining separation adds to the costs at every level and it therefore poses the difficult question of where those costs should fall. It will not be the same answer in each instance and the regulator should be prepared and able to address these issues sensitively and fairly. It has, for example, been considered reasonable to argue for the very considerable costs of assembling the material for subtitles or audio description to be absorbed as an overhead of programme making. On the same basis, the expenses of the transmission network provision may be bundled up in the costs charged to the broadcasters for carrying their programmes. What then of the terminal equipment? If the accessibility features are not separated, but are transmitted as an integral part of each programme, they will be displayed on a standard receiver and the disabled viewer - or listener - is treated just as anyone else. If the features are separated, special receivers become necessary, usually at additional cost. Is it then discriminatory to expect disabled people to pay extra sums for their broadcast receivers, or should the provision be subsidised, and if so, how?

Television subtitling provides a good example. In order to receive subtitles on analogue television, a teletext receiver is required. It used to be the case that many people chose to have teletext and to pay the additional cost for the receiving set. When the manufacturers decided that it made commercial sense to put teletext facilities into all their mainstream products - because it was cheaper to do that than to offer the option - the problem went away. Prior to that stage, there was the impossible question of who should carry the costs of facilities which are essential for some, but merely desirable for others. This kind of problem worsens as the added facilities become more specialised and more expensive, and the regulator will be unable to avoid involvement in situations such as this.

In fact, the regulator is already deeply involved. Existing requirements on broadcasters, repeated in the draft Communications Bill, set out quotas to be achieved for features such as subtitling, audio description and sign language translation, without specifying whether or not these facilities are to be separated. Where the quotas are small, the programmes can be transmitted at night and recorded by viewers, although whether this is itself a form of discrimination is a matter of debate. With large quotas - 80% or more in the case of subtitling - transmission cannot be confined to unsocial hours and there is a direct choice between annoying the majority of viewers with intrusive captions or transmitting the subtitles separately. For most programmes the subtitles are sent separately, in a closed format to be displayed only on demand. In analogue television broadcasting the Teletext service is used for this, but digital broadcasting has other arrangements. Reception of separated accessibility facilities in digital broadcasting therefore hinges on the receiver specification or, in the transition period, on that of the 'set-top box'.

The regulator's role in relation to receiving equipment is extremely limited, because the receiver market is de-regulated. Specifications for digital broadcast receivers are set through European Standards organisations and OFCOM will have a responsibility to engage in this work. However, the primary purpose of standards is to facilitate trade and it is therefore most unlikely that any published standard will make added features essential rather than optional. What is, and is not, included in the products offered in the market-place will depend upon the purchasing habits demonstrated by consumers, just as happened with the analogue television receivers and Teletext. There will be many who are quick to point out the inconsistency of having accessibility built in to the content provision and transmission levels of broadcasting, only to be negated if the necessary receivers should prove to be either unavailable or unaffordable. Should this situation arise, a possible answer may lie within an expanded concept of universal service. Citing market failure to deliver the means of accessing a basic service could provide a justification for intervention and subsidy. However, this is a complex issue which a newly established regulator may not have the will or the resources to tackle in the early stages of a new era in broadcasting. The parallel case of accessible terminals for telecommunications is as yet unresolved, but the experience gained from exploring this particular problem can perhaps be carried across to the broadcasting sector. Nevertheless, a better solution for all parties would be to ensure that the technical standards for all the facilities mentioned fit within the basic performance specification of the digital services.

In broadcasting and in telecommunications, the terminal is the key to network access. Without a suitable radio or television receiver, or an appropriate telephone instrument, use of the service is impossible. For users who are disabled, the descriptions 'suitable' and 'appropriate' take on a particular significance. The terminal has to be appropriate to the user's requirements as well as to the network's specification; otherwise it is of limited use. Broadcasters are not expected to supply receiving sets and anyone who wants one buys it or rents it from a shop. It was a different matter with telephones which were, until de-regulation, supplied by the network operator and the needs of disabled users were usually catered for. In consequence, disabled telephone users who now find that they cannot obtain the equipment that they need, or have to pay high prices for niche market devices, complain with good reason that de-regulation has effectively discriminated against them.

European and National legislators have placed a duty upon the regulators to be watchful over the interests of disabled and disadvantaged users and this will certainly apply to OFCOM. There is little scope for the regulator to influence the design of telephone terminals, because this area is now extensively de-regulated, but there is some room to ensure that accessible and affordable terminals are available. Their provision, if the market does not deliver it, could be brought within the scope of universal service if the regulator is so minded. It would take a very big step indeed to apply this principle to broadcast receivers as well as telephone terminals, and OFCOM would no doubt prefer to see the European standards for digital broadcast networks and receivers drafted in a way that delivers accessibility without the need for special terminals.

Other Accessible Services

Subtitling and audio description have been mentioned as examples of added facilities that make broadcast television programmes accessible to people with particular types of disability. Signing (in British Sign Language, for example) and lipspeaking are further examples of measures that help people with hearing difficulties to follow programmes. Both have been tried successfully on a limited basis. As with subtitling, they require a portion of the television screen to be dedicated to displaying spoken information in a visual mode. They therefore have to be provided selectively on demand - and received on specially equipped sets - or else mainly confined to specialist programmes broadcast at unsocial hours.

Another likely requirement is for 'clean' audio. This means that the spoken word is broadcast without any sound effects or background music that would mask the speech for hard of hearing listeners. This facility would be applicable to radio as well as television transmission and would be cheap to provide in television, because there the speech component is usually recorded on separate tracks to facilitate foreign language dubbing when the programme is sold in other markets. It does, however, require an additional transmission channel and suitably equipped receivers. As exchange of programmes across Europe becomes more commonplace in the new de-regulated environment, it may become possible for viewers to select which language track they wish to hear, in which case de-selection of the background track should cause no difficulty. Until then, reception of clean audio will require special facilities.

In digital television, facilities such as those described above will call for the use of subsidiary channels, or sub-channels, to carry the information and allow it to be separated from the mainstream signal. Viewer selection of the appropriate subsidiary channels, and the ability to mix the signal into the visual or audio output of the receiver, will hinge upon the capability of the receiving set. In the interim period, while the industry scenario for digital TV reception is still evolving, this amounts to the capability of the set-top box used to receive digital signals and display them through a conventional analogue receiver. As mentioned earlier, there is scope for regulators to influence the technical standards, although these will be implemented at a European rather than a national level. A particular aim must be to achieve compatibility between satellite, cable and terrestrial systems, with the added complication that satellite broadcasting lies within a global, rather than European, environment. The recently exposed commercial weakness of terrestrial digital television will make the regulator's task, which was always going to be difficult, very much harder.

The de-regulation of broadcasting may be uncharted territory, but there is a wealth of experience in telecommunications to draw on, following liberalisation in that sector. The new regulator will have responsibilities for both, and a number of issues which are already under debate will need to be resolved. The major accessibility issues in telecommunications would appear to be linked to the availability and affordability of broadband services, both in fixed line and through third generation mobile networks. Broadband, with its accompanying multi-media capability, can potentially provide many added value services to disabled users. High definition video telephones, now available experimentally and expensively, are adequate for sign communication and lipreading but will not be of significant value for deaf users until there is a large installed base. This in turn depends upon the cost of the equipment and the broadband connection falling to levels acceptable to domestic consumers. When this point is reached there will doubtless be a need for a Videophone relay service to parallel the present TypeTalk, and the scope of universal service will be due for further review. These seem to be issues for the longer term, although encouragement to offer low-cost broadband service is a present high priority.

What could OFCOM do?

Of the service examples mentioned above, subtitling is well-established but will probably require some protection in the new era of de-regulated broadcasting. Audio description is still embryonic and other forms of added-value services to aid accessibility are emerging and will continue to develop as resources permit. These services are unlikely to be commercially viable so the driving forces will be social pressures. Funding could become a major issue. It is not exclusively an issue for the national regulator, although OFCOM may well find that it is forced into a lead role.

Within the framework of the new EU Directives on electronic communications, it will be possible for Governments to subsidise areas of provision that fall within the broad description of universal service. Although the UK Government will be able to do this, without distorting the rules of the 'level playing field', there is no reason to suppose that it will want to do so. Funding from within the communications sector, supervised by OFCOM, would seem to be the likely source and this view is confirmed by the stance taken in the draft Communications Bill.

There is also the impact of anti-discrimination legislation - the Disability Discrimination Act. The costs of making the adjustments required by this Act fall upon the service providers themselves. Experience with the telecommunications sector has shown that compliance with general legal obligations that are binding on all operators is quite separate from the concept of universal service. The designation of a provision within universal service, and with it the possibility of reimbursement of unmet costs from an industry fund, only applies where the market has failed to deliver and the regulator has then called upon specific providers to offer essential services. When providers are delivering, whether because of general legal obligations or as a result of commercial initiative, the universal service case does not come into play. Nevertheless, it seems improbable that OFCOM could avoid being drawn into the difficult debate over what adjustments are reasonable and possible in the context of the Disability Discrimination Act. Decisions of this nature call for experience of the industry and its resourcing, which OFCOM should be in a unique position to contribute. Consumer pressure will be directed at OFCOM in the first instance. It will be OFCOM's inescapable task to consider adjustments which are not to be regarded as reasonable - for the industry - but are important for the consumer, and therefore liable to fall within the remit of universal service.

Raising funding for loss-making accessible services by any form of levy on the industry, or by requiring operators to contain such costs within their service budgets, could lead to complaints that the regulator is implementing measures that might drive away business from the UK. OFCOM has an obligation to ensure that regulation is applied with a light touch, with interventions that are at a minimum level to secure the declared objective. At the same time, consumer pressure from disabled people will be under-lining the disadvantages they endure in trying to share in the information society. OFCOM will not have an easy task.


Technical feasibility of all of the accessibility features that have been mentioned has already been established, so the central issue is now an economic one. In broadcasting, costs of any accessibility features need to be examined at each of the three levels of content provision, transmission and reception, noting that the economic mechanisms are likely to be different in each case. There are different economic drivers at work in telecommunications, with very strong market forces in play. Disabled and elderly people form a very large market segment for telecommunications service providers, and are not to be ignored in the drive to retain existing customers and persuade them to make greater use of the networks. Identified user needs that are not directly commercially viable may still be contributors to profitability because of the additional traffic generated - the so-called 'externality' factor. If this is shown not to apply, there is the mechanism of universal service to consider and this is clearly within the regulator's remit. While market forces certainly operate in broadcasting, these are directly or indirectly linked to audience numbers and advertising revenues, so minority interests tend to get lost in the aggregated figures. Here, the regulators role is somewhat different because it will be consumer lobby pressure rather than observed economic performance that sets the levels of accessible services.

The growth of digital broadcasting, and the convergence of telephony and the Internet in third generation mobile networks, will bring about profound changes in the perceived feasibility of novel types of service. These will in turn re-define the whole structure of costs, as the commercial picture is influenced by the combined forces of consumer push and technology pull. The rate at which new types of service, especially in third generation mobile telecommunications, move from high cost business user facilities to affordable domestic sector offerings will be a crucial factor. Although broadcast content might appear to be unaffected by technological changes, in practice it will be as content providers explore new techniques. We may assume that some of the changes to come will bring improvements in accessibility and in the distribution of costs, while others will move in the opposite direction. The regulator will need to keep watch over the whole process, so that developments which seem to be enhancing exclusion can be moderated as fairly as possible without hampering the legitimate evolution of electronic communications. This process will call for the most careful consultation with informed participants.

The need for digital broadcasting facilities such as subtitling, audio description and clean audio to be carried separately from the main picture and sound signal, if they are to be accessed on user demand, sets specific requirements for the network and the receivers. However, in this respect they are no different from those types of interactive television in which the viewer selects the camera angle or the action replay. The technical means of doing this exist at the levels of content and transmission and, at a rather cruder level, at the receiving set. Effort needs to be concentrated upon the development of receivers which are capable of displaying these facilities, while being user-friendly and affordable, and the most effective way of doing this is to ensure that all of the facilities mentioned fit within the mainstream technical specifications for digital television. As already noted, OFCOM will have no powers to set technical or economic requirements for receivers and it will need to exert its influence in this respect through its role in the European standards process.

Sign language interpretation in television programmes is also of established technical feasibility, but here the main issue is likely to arise at the content level and it is primarily an economic one. The Communications Bill calls for a quota of 5% of programmes to have sign language interpretation (by 2008), but this can be met with minority interest programmes transmitted in the middle of the night. Signed interpretation of mainstream programmes is a different matter. Although the technical issues are very similar to the interactive television example mentioned earlier, the costs of employing interpreters for a greater range of programmes will be considerable. OFCOM will have to perform a difficult balancing act in applying expensive accessibility requirements to UK content providers if similar offerings cannot be obtained from off-shore satellite broadcasters. The present moves towards de-regulation are in recognition of the reality that broadcasting is no longer a private national concern, for the technology has turned it into one which is not only global, but also highly competitive. Preservation of the national and European cultures in broadcasting inhibits cost loadings that are not applied to those global competitors.

In the telecommunications sector, the availability of broadband networks at domestic market prices will determine the point at which video telephony becomes a useful facility. Here again, the technical feasibility has been demonstrated; the issue is an economic one and the extension of broadband service is at the centre of much of OFTEL's actions. It is far from being resolved and is therefore likely to figure on OFCOM's agenda. On mobile networks, the development of third generation services will benefit deaf users by facilitating real-time text conversations, because the network will offer e-mail as a standard feature. Used back-to-back, e-mail terminals using the Internet Protocol will provide the desired facility without any need for dedicated text terminals or special text user tariffs. If variable bandwidth charging is employed, text calls could become cheaper than voice. But the roll-out of third generation services has been delayed by the downturn in the profitability of the mobile networks, and OFCOM will face a delicate task in pressing for accessibility without damaging commercial growth. Other promised offerings from third generation mobiles will help deaf users by making more use of visual presentation, but will inevitably create the risk of disadvantage for people with visual impairment. On issues such as this, the regulator's task is easier when the industry is financially strong and there are resources available for activities which may not yield short-term profit. Again, planning and foresight will eventually produce the desired results.


The regulatory background for electronic communications is defined by a set of Directives which have been negotiated and agreed upon by the EU Member States and the European Parliament. Those Directives currently in force in relation to telecommunications are about to be replaced by a new consolidated set, which will continue the de-regulatory liberalising stance of the present ones and extend these principles to broadcasting and other forms of electronic communication. So, while the concept of liberalised communications may be said to have been tried and tested in the telecommunications sector, the extensions beyond that sector will trigger some major practical considerations of crucial importance. The process of telecommunications liberalisation is by no means complete, and the pattern so far developed in that sector does not fit exactly with the procedures of broadcasting as currently practised. Furthermore, technological and commercial developments in both sectors require the process of regulation to be subject to constant review as service innovations introduce new priorities and alter expectations. The new set of Directives, in an attempt to achieve 'future-proofing', provides in the main a broad framework of de-regulation. Such detail as is included relates in the main to the experience gained from de-regulation in the telecommunications sector. Member State Governments and their regulators will therefore have to interpret these broad requirements in a way which suits their national policies - the 'subsidiarity' principle - while adhering to the essential liberalisation objectives as agreed in the Directives. The draft Communications Bill sets out the proposed United Kingdom approach.

The present Directives concerned with telecommunications deal only with network services. The content that is carried over telecommunications networks is almost entirely a private matter and the terminal equipment - that is, the sending and receiving apparatus that customers connect to the networks - has been separately de-regulated so that it is now treated as a category of general consumer products. Inclusion of broadcasting, by the extension of the scope of the Directives to cover electronic communications of all kinds, brings in content provision as a third element. The new Directives therefore recognise horizontal separations of electronic communications to produce the three levels of content provision, transmission networks and receiving equipment. As these are essentially Single Market Directives, they are aimed at ensuring free and fair competition, with constraints on monopoly power, while providing adequate measures of consumer protection. They will aim to ensure that content providers have ready access to the networks; that anyone who has obtained radio spectrum allocations or landline wayleaves is entitled to operate a network; and, as a separate matter, that a free market in receiving apparatus gives consumers a wide choice of equipment with which to utilise the network services.

As noted earlier, the communications regulator OFCOM will have a very limited role in respect of receiving equipment. Radio and telecommunications terminal equipment (RTTE) has been de-regulated by a separate Directive which allows Member States little scope for applying national requirements. Apart from spectrum management considerations for radio terminals, the regulator will have no power to intervene. Domestic radio and television receivers are exempted from the RTTE Directive, however, because they were already treated as electrical consumer goods and OFCOM does have a role here by contributing to the setting of standards for digital receivers. In particular, common European Standards for digital television sets need to match the technical standards adopted for the transmissions, without creating a situation where receivers become specific to particular networks, or where special receivers become necessary to obtain accessibility features such as subtitling or audio description.

In order to achieve their aims, the Directives create obligations for monopoly owners of communications infrastructure to share that resource, at charges for interconnection which are freely negotiable subject to the regulator's intervention if there appears to be any abuse of market power. This requires a major culture change, especially where that monopoly owner is itself an agency of the State. To a greater or lesser extent, this has already been brought about across the telecommunications sector in the EU, although there are some notable areas of difficulty. Even in the UK, where British Telecom has long been privatised, the difficulties in providing open access to the 'local loop' circuits demonstrate the kind of real procedural problems that can delay the process. When a vital part of the infrastructure has traditionally been 'owned' by a single organisation, and when duplicating it would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive, finding an equitable means of permitting shared use may be no easy matter. Applying this principle to terrestrial broadcasting, where the transmission networks have long been associated with specific broadcasters, is likely to cause much argument.

The new Directives permit national regulators to apply 'must carry' conditions to transmission networks, and this feature is carried through into the draft Communications Bill. As drafted, the 'must carry' requirements are for transmission of the digital services of the BBC, Channels 3, 4 & 5 and the Teletext service. No mention is made in the draft Bill of accessibility features such as subtitling, audio description or signing, although obligations to provide these are applied to the content providers. Since additional channel space is needed to transmit these features if they are to be available on demand, they will need to be included in the 'must carry' list so that, in conjunction with receivers designed to an appropriate common European Standard, an end-to-end service that is accessible can be offered.

The facility to apply 'must carry' obligations derives from the new Directive on Universal Service and Users' Rights, which sets out the scope for national regulators to apply various important consumer protection measures in the electronic communications sector. The concept of universal service in fixed line telecommunications is familiar, but its extension to mobile networks and broadcasting breaks new ground. The principle is that the regulator may designate a service provider to deliver an essential element of service if commercial market forces fail to provide. If the designated provider incurs a net financial loss in delivering that part of the service, there is a mechanism for cost recovery by means of a levy on the other operators in the sector, although OFTEL has so far concluded that its designated providers of universal service in telecommunications do not experience any net loss. The new Directive expands this principle, not only by removing the limitation to fixed telecommunications networks, but also by stressing that consumers who are reliant upon universal service should be entitled to some freedom of choice in their supplier. It also allows for other funding mechanisms, such as Government subsidy, in addition to the possibility of a levy, and it creates the possibility of various universal service packages, with several providers each undertaking a set of the functions rather than the whole.

These changes to universal service are significant. If consumers are to be given some freedom of choice in their designated provider, it follows that universal service designation would be triggered in circumstances where market forces are delivering but there is no choice of operator. Universal service then ceases to be the fall-back when there is no provision, but becomes instead a form of subsidy to encourage competition for marginally viable operations. A universal service issue which has been raised in telecommunications is the matter of provision of accessible terminal equipment. If terminal apparatus needed by disabled users is not available in the market-place at affordable prices, can the regulator invoke the universal service mechanism to redress the situation? This question is not resolved and it will doubtless appear on OFCOM's agenda.

Universal service in the context of broadcasting is virgin territory. It may become necessary to invoke some form of universal service designation to protect the position of the BBC in public service broadcasting, for otherwise it would be hard to justify the imposition of a tax on consumers (the licence fee) which was applied exclusively for the benefit of one selected broadcaster. There are implications here which go far beyond the scope of this paper, but in a liberalised European environment there have to be good reasons for giving favourable treatment to one player. The good reasons might be that the player provides a necessary set of services that a purely commercial market could not support.

The provision of accessible broadcast services is not of itself a universal service matter. It is not sufficient to have facilities such as subtitling and audio description offered only by a few designated providers. The setting of quotas for these services by the regulator forms part of the content regulation function and, as such, it serves to demonstrate what is reasonable. Other broadcasters should follow that lead and make reasonable adjustments in the delivery of their own services. Experience with telecommunications has shown that the universal service fall-back does not operate when there is a legal requirement to provide the facility concerned. Compliance with the law is part of the normal commercial market scenario, the market-place delivers - albeit unwillingly - and so designation is not called for and the costs of compliance are not recoverable through universal service mechanisms.

Because of these uncertainties, it is to be expected that the format of regulation in the era of liberalised broadcasting will develop slowly. A significant imponderable is the degree to which electronic communications originating outside the territory, such as satellite and Internet transmissions, can be regulated effectively. Over-regulation of territorial providers in comparison to others could damage national and European interests. What is most important for disabled people is that OFCOM should consider their needs throughout the developing processes and act appropriately, rather than defer consideration to a quieter moment when other priorities have been addressed.


OFCOM could usefully look at the following topics if it is to meet its obligations to improve service accessibility for disabled users.


  • Develop a system for underwriting the availability of affordable and accessible telephone terminals so that disabled people have the opportunity to make full use of the networks
  • Complete the work to harmonise text telephony protocols on the fixed networks and extend this to provide compatible facilities on GSM mobile networks
  • Encourage the promoters of 3G networks to build in accessibility as a mainstream objective and to roll out affordable services to the consumer market at an early date
  • Promote development of broadband services over both fixed and mobile networks
  • Consider extension of universal service principles to mobile and broadband offerings
  • Promote the use of broadband video telephony, with relay services as appropriate, to provide for the needs of deaf people using sign language or lipreading.


  • Ensure that 'must carry' obligations for the networks provide for transmission of subtitles, audio description and sign language on demand, to accompany mainstream programmes
  • Ensure that standards for receiving apparatus allow of reception and simultaneous display of alternative and augmentative signals, eg subtitles etc without the need for additional equipment
  • Encourage the offering of clean audio (ie speech without background music or sound effects) as a soundtrack option
  • Ensure that accessibility requirements are applied to the user environment for interactive television and the use of electronic programme guides
  • Ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that satellite, cable and terrestrial services are compatible in terms of procedures, facilities and user connected equipment.

Further information

Telephones: What Features do Disabled People Need? at

Mobile Telephony: Will Future Developments be Accessible to Visually Impaired Users? at

Call Barred? Inclusive Design of Wireless Systems at

Bluetooth: Can It Help Disabled People? at

Requirements for the Interconnection of Assistive Technology Devices and Information and Communication Technology Systems at

The Use of Electronic Purses by Disabled People: What are the Needs? at

Guidelines for the Design of Screen and Web Phones to be Accessible by Visually Disabled Persons at

Inclusive Design of Interactive Television at


Published by Royal National Institute of the Blind
in collaboration with PhoneAbility

ISBN 1 86048 028 4

© Copyright reserved, 2002.

RNIB Scientific Research Unit, 105 Judd Street, London WC1H 9NE, UK.
Tel: +44 20 7391 2244
Fax: +44 20 7391 2318


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