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Steps announced to ensure sustainability of communications service for people with hearing or speech impairments in Australia

Steps announced to ensure sustainability of communications service for people with hearing or speech impairments in Australia

The Australian Government is going to take steps to ensure the sustainability of the National Relay Service (NRS), a communications safety net for people with hearing or speech impairments.

NRS contact was introduced in 2012-13, as an Australia-wide phone service for people who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment. It is also available to anyone who wants to call a person with a hearing or speech impairment. The NRS is available to everyone at no additional charge. For example, a person can start a relay call through an app or the NRS website. The relay officer will ring the intended recipient of the call and the caller can then start typing their side of the conversation in the message window. The relay officer becomes the voice of the caller, reading aloud the words typed out and typing back the response for the caller to read.

The usage of some NRS services has increased substantially, putting pressure on the overall service. For instance, usage minutes for captioned telephony, increased by over 347 per cent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The NRS annual funding allocation of AU$22 million was set in 2012, of which AU$18 million is for the relay service and AU$4 million for the outreach program. During the last financial year, increases in usage led the total cost of delivering the NRS to grow to AU$26.3 million, with the relay service component costing AU$22.1 million – more than AU$4 million above the funding allocation. This represents an increase of nearly 22 per cent over the delivery costs in the previous financial year.

The government has released an implementation plan proposing changes to the NRS, drawing on community feedback to the consultation paper ‘Communications accessibility: 2016 and beyond’. This will ensure that the service continues to be funded at the same level as the existing funding allocation, and that all existing communications options remain available to NRS users under the current contracts.

Three key steps were announced as part of the implementation plan. First, the NRS outreach function will be rebalanced. Key outreach functions will continue to be delivered, including the helpdesk and online presence, which are available to users and potential users of the NRS. The online presence will shift in focus to educate users about the wide variety of easily-accessible communication options available to people with unique needs, such as online and app-based message services.

Secondly, a registration process will be introduced to provide improved data insights into NRS usage and user requirements. Users will be asked to provide a limited set of personal information, in accordance with Australian Privacy Principles. This will allow a more comprehensive analysis of the needs of NRS users and will assist the Government in ensuring appropriate arrangements.

Finally, the Government will go to tender for the continued provision of the NRS, ensuring that the existing total annual funding allocation of AU$22 million (including GST) remains in place. This process is expected to commence in the near future.

There have been no changes to the wide range of call options currently available to users of the NRS under the existing contract with the Australian Government, including internet relay, captioned relay, video relay, SMS relay, and more.

These recommendations will be implemented through changes to the existing NRS agreements and the upcoming tender process, with changes to the outreach service expected to take full effect following 1 July 2017.

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