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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 4

Senator EGGLESTON (12:40 PM) —The purpose of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Amendment (National Relay Service) Bill 2005 is to amend the Telecommunications Act 1999 so that the Commonwealth can contract with more than one person or organisation to deliver the National Relay Service, otherwise known as the NRS. The amendments will allow the Commonwealth to consider the option of contracting with more than one provider to supply different components of the NRS if that is deemed to be a more efficient and effective service model. The explanatory memorandum to this bill sets out three key objectives of the bill. They are to:

  • provide greater flexibility and choice for Government to have a range of options available for delivery of the NRS in the most efficient and effective way;
  • promote tender by allowing more flexible market testing in future NRS tender processes, if considered appropriate, to ensure that the price for providing the NRS is competitive and provides ‘value for money’ for the Commonwealth; and
  • better support continuity and accountability of all elements of the NRS, so that consumers from the deaf, hearing and speech impaired communities continue to receive a high quality and reliable service.

I understand that the Labor Party and the Democrats will support this bill. The National Relay Service provides a vitally important confidential and free service for Australians who are deaf or who have a hearing or speech impediment. It commenced operation on 30 May 1995 and allows the deaf, speech impaired and hearing impaired to contact anyone on the telephone network through the National Relay Service. It also allows anyone in the community to communicate with them using the standard telephone service. A relay officer assists with calls. Conversations can be typed or read entirely by a teleprinter or on a computer with a modem. In other cases, the relay officer will read the conversation aloud. The NRS operates 24 hours a day every day of the year and includes a text based emergency service. It is funded by a levy on eligible telecommunications carriers. In 2003-04, the total cost of providing the NRS was $15.7 million, including GST.

For the information of the Senate, the NRS provides the following relay services: text to text, voice to text, text to voice and voice carryover. This latter service primarily enables users with a hearing impairment but not a speech impairment to read a hearing person’s words on a text based device and use natural speech to respond. Another aspect of this service is voice carryover to voice carryover, or VCO to VCO, which enables two users with hearing but not speech impairment to use speech and read the responses on a text based device. Hearing carryover, or HCO, is a service which enables users with a speech impairment to listen to another person on the telephone and type their responses on a text based communications device such as a TTY or a computer with modem.

The text emergency service is obviously a service which operates in emergencies. It enables users of text based communications devices to contact the emergency services, usually reached through the 000 telephone number. The NRS relays such calls directly to the police, fire or ambulance service and maintains a separate infrastructure and staff to provide priority access for such calls. The call number for this service is 106. The speech-to-speech relay service enables a person with a speech impairment to have a two-way conversation on the telephone. The relay operator listens to the call and, if necessary, repeats the parts of the message that have not been understood.

According to the Deafness Forum of Australia:

Studies have estimated that the prevalence of hearing impairment in the Australian population aged 15 years and over is 22%. That means, the number of “adult” people in Australia with a hearing impairment can be estimated at 3.25 million. When you add the number of children under 15 years with a hearing impairment, it is clear that hearing/deafness disability is the most common disability in the Australian population.

According to the Australian Association of the Deaf Inc.:

Deaf people with a severe to profound hearing loss cannot use the voice telephone network and rely heavily on the text based services. The TTY is the main communication device for deaf people to make telephone calls to family, friends and conduct day-to-day business. In communication with TTY distribution sources, we believe there are currently over 15,000+ TTYs in Australia.

The legislation requires the NRS to be provided by a person under a contract with the Commonwealth. The National Relay Service commenced operations way back on 30 May 1995, and it certainly has been a great success story. The current NRS provider, the Australian Communication Exchange, operates two call centres—one in Brisbane and one in Melbourne—to deliver the NRS Australia wide. Both of these call centres have dedicated text emergency call points. The NRS operates 24 hours a day every day of the year, thus it is always available for hearing impaired people to use. In 2003-04, the NRS relayed 3,780,741 call minutes. In 2003-04, 627,275 calls were made to the NRS. In 2003-04, 670,684 outbound calls were made from the NRS.

Just to go on with these statistics, in 2003-04 there was an increase of 1.7 per cent in successful outbound calls from the NRS. In 2003-04, there was a 10 per cent increase in total call minutes relayed by the NRS. The average duration of an outbound call in 2003-04 was 5.6 minutes. Sixty-two per cent of calls to the NRS in 2003-04 were from teletypewriters, and 90 per cent of outbound calls from the NRS were voice calls. I am sure you will agree that those figures are very impressive. The current NRS provider is the Australian Communication Exchange Ltd, or ACE for short, which is a not-for-profit association. I think ACE deserves to be congratulated for the exceptionally high and successful level of service it is providing to the hearing impaired population of Australia. It is a record that ACE has every reason to be proud of. According to ACE, since 1 December 2000 a world-first text based emergency call service, using the dedicated short dial number 106, has been offered as part of the NRS. ACE says that this service:

... provides people with a hearing or speech impairment and consumers who are Deaf with a service having the full functionality of the Telstra 000 emergency service yet it is accessible by TTY, modem, VCO and HCO.

That is another example of the success of the services provided by ACE. The changes proposed by this bill will allow the NRS to be delivered in the most efficient and cost-effective way. The explanatory memorandum notes:

The ability to contract with more than one provider would allow the Commonwealth to test the market in future NRS tender processes and determine whether service quality, accountability and value for money would be improved by contracting separately for different elements of the NRS. In addition, the ability to contract with more than one provider would enable a staged transition between service providers, in the event of a new provider winning a tender. This would minimise risks about reliability and continuity of service for the NRS during any transition period.

The explanatory memorandum also notes:

The last tender process for the NRS contract was conducted in 1997-1998. Since then, there have been significant developments in the telecommunications industry and call centre technology. Testing the changing market is an important element in future NRS tender processes.

ACE’s current contract, which expires on 30 June 2006, will not be affected, and ACE will be treated in the same manner as any other potential bidder for the provision of the NRS. When this new contract is offered, relevant stakeholders will be consulted about the future model of the NRS. The explanatory memorandum notes:

Any consideration of options for the best service delivery model for the NRS in future would be made in the context of views and advice from stakeholders, and expert advice on relevant technical issues.

The government is seeking to ensure that this marvellous service is maintained to hearing impaired members of the Australian community and, by offering the contract out to tender, it is seeking to have more cost-effectiveness introduced and perhaps in some ways a better service provided, depending on what is proposed by the various people who respond to the contract tender. I commend this bill to the Senate.