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Friday, 2 August, 2002, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Headset hassles and Bluetooth aches
Ericsson Bluetooth headset, Ericsson
Bluetooth headset - looks good, tricky to use for some
A technology called Bluetooth is supposed to make it easier for us to get our gadgets and ourselves connected. But for BBC Producer Colin Hughes Bluetooth is nothing but trouble.

When Bluetooth headsets for mobiles appeared I was excited because I hoped it would solve a problem I've always had using a handset.

But getting Bluetooth to work has proved worse than toothache and turned me blue with frustration.

I have a disability, muscular dystrophy, a muscle wasting condition that confines me to a wheelchair and means my muscles are severely weakened. It makes lifting a mobile phone to my ear impossible.

The traditional hands free devices I've tried are fiddly and sound quality is very variable.

Bluetooth headsets looked like the answer.

Flawed idea

As a journalist working in television production I make and receive dozens of calls every day.

A Bluetooth headset that links to a handset via radio and has much improved sound quality would be a big help.


Mobile phones should be usable by everyone

Colin Hughes, BBC producer
Or so I thought.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the "answer" button on the Ericsson and Bluetooth headsets must be pressed to pick up a call.

This I am unable to do, making the gadgets next to useless.

On discovering this flaw I contacted the customer services departments at Sony Ericsson and Nokia. I got nowhere very quickly.

I was hoping to speak to an engineer working in research and development, but what I got was a polite but very succinct letter stating that my "observations would be passed on to the relevant department".

Perhaps it isn't that surprising when those in positions of responsibility hide behind the impermeable screen of a customer service call centre no solution or explanation has been provided to my frustration.

Swift response

The response to e-mails sent to Sony Ericsson and Motorola in the USA could not have been more different.

People dedicated to helping disabled customers contacted me and were eager to find a solution.

The US Product Manager for Motorola's Bluetooth headset told me it has an "auto answer" feature in its new mobile phones.

Colin Hughes, BBC
Hughes: disappointed with Bluetooth
This means phone calls are answered automatically while using either a wired or Bluetooth headset. This feature picks up a call after two rings, knows when it has ended and closes the line without you ever having to press a button.

The Motorola phone also lets you wake the headset by pressing the handset's answer button, eliminating the need to raise an arm. Alas, these features apply to the Motorola 270c phone, which is only available in the US.

Sony Ericsson US employs someone who only handles technical support for disabled customers. My email enquiry resulted in an hour long call from North Carolina offering advice on what could be done.

This constructive approach to the needs of disabled consumers in the US is not surprising. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1996 Telecom Act place heavy responsibilities on companies to make their products useable.

Tough rules

There are no such legal obligations on manufacturers of mobile phones for the UK, even though the 1984 Telecommunications Act 1984 charges Oftel with promoting the interests of consumers.

Despite this mobile makers seem free to launch products with no regard to whether disabled consumers can use them. Nor must they provide information on their products that would be useful to disabled people.

Nokia Bluetooth headset, Nokia
Bluetooth headsets are becoming popular
A 1999 EU directive on telecommunications saw the end of regulations which made manufacturers certify products with statutory authorities in each country. Instead manufacturers are allowed to self certify.

The British Approvals Board on Telecommunications advises manufacturers on certification but is powerless to force them to improve disabled access.

How different it is in the US. The websites of the telecom companies contain pages of information explaining how their products can help disabled people.

Sony Ericsson even has a call centre dedicated to handling disabled customer enquiries.

Disabled consumers get scant mention on the UK websites of any phone manufacturer, and none offer a specialist information service.

Purchasing power

The Americans with Disabilities Act raised awareness and improved access to technology.

By contrast the UK's 1995 Disability Discrimination Act has not been as effective in encouraging companies and others to understand and respond more to the needs of disabled consumers.

Legal requirements under the DDA covering physical access to products don't come into effect until 2004 and it is unclear whether mobile phone manufacturers will be covered by them.

There is another reason why the US is way ahead. Federal departments demand that anything they buy meets strict accessibility criteria.

Sony Aibo robot dog, BBC
Sony could be using Bluetooth in its robot dogs
The government buys a lot of handsets so it's worth manufacturers ensuring their equipment is accessible to everyone.

In the last year the British government has bought 200,000 handsets but as it deals with service providers rather than directly with manufacturers it is difficult for it to have a positive influence.

This isn't just me having a whinge. The Research Institute for Consumer Affairs also believes the UK telecom manufacturers aren't doing enough.

For many years this charity has assessed products for their ease of use by people with disabilities - many domestic appliances could be used by many more consumers with more thoughtful design.

Better access

It goes wider than Bluetooth headsets too. These are issues for us all. I know blind, deaf and old people who have problems with mobile phones. My grandmother doesn't have a disability yet still finds tiny buttons and small screens difficult to use.

Mobile phone button, BBC
Buttons are fiddly for many people
Perhaps the Americans understand more about untapped markets. About eight million people in the UK have some form of disability. Some 7.5 million people have some hearing loss, about 1 million are visually impaired and 70% of disabled people develop mobility problems.

There are over 10.5 million older people and as we age we are more likely to suffer disabilities.

If mobile phone manufacturers thought more about designing their products for people like us, rather than serving up gimmicks for schoolkids, they'd find a whole new market ready to buy their products.

Mobile phones should be usable by everyone. It requires positive action by handset makers and tough regulation to enforce licence obligations and to champion the additional needs of disabled consumers.

As I write I'm getting bluer by the day. Despite the helpfulness of US manufacturers, I still haven't got round my problem of answering a mobile phone call via a Bluetooth headset.

It's not rocket science but maybe scientists at companies like Sony Ericsson and Nokia need to focus some of their creativity on the consumers who have most to gain from their exciting advances.

See also:

23 Jan 01 | Business
14 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
22 Mar 01 | Business
15 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
27 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
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