Google disability event

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Cartoon man with a wlaking frame and smartphone

The Google Campus in London is playing host a conference run by Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli disability organisation, to look at how to allow more people to enjoy the wonders of mobile tech. And it’s holding a conference to amass ideas from people who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this. Even better, some of them have ambitious actions in train.

There is a general problem with designing mobile phones known as the “usability knee”. That is if you make a phone very simple, with only a few button it then becomes much harder to add features. Having to press one button three times and another twice to get to a little used function isn’t simple.

The alternative is to have a button for each function, but pretty soon the phone is covered in choc-a-block buttons. This might be appealing for Google which names its software after confectionary but is very confusing to use.
Fuss Free Phones makes mobiles simple by having a telephonist to help you summoned with the press of a single button. That person can connect your call, send a text, read out an incoming text, look up things on the internet and have the telephonist block nuisance calls.

Using a person to do all the things that people find complicated with phones is, in the minds of geeks, cheating. Google wants the phone to be smarter and work in a way that people with disabilities can cope with.
To this end The phone's camera tracks the user's head movement, which acts as a navigational device.

And Google is looking for more ideas and so has invited Beit Issie Shapiro along with some of the leading thinkers in technology and disabilities to Google Campus London, a short walk from the Fuss Free Phones office, for a lively discussion about the power of assistive technology for people with disabilities. The event takes place On Tuesday, 1st November at 5:30pm
The panel, led by some of the industry’s most prolific thinkers in this area will cover today’s global landscape of assistive technologies, including smart mobile technology and technical adaptations. They will discuss the various ways in which technology improves the well-being and social inclusion of people with disabilities and their families.

Beit Issie Shapiro is a world-renowned charity based in Israel that leads the development and provision of therapies and state-of-the-art services for children and adults across the entire range of disabilities. Reaching 30,000 people in Israel and thousands of others across over 27 countries, BIS shares its knowledge and innovations globally through international affiliations, education and training programmes, including with Google Israel. BIS has Special Consultative Status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

There will be a panel session hosted by Saul Klein OBE, who co-founded Lovefilm International (acquired by Amazon) and was also part of the original executive team at Skype. Most recently he co-founded Kano and Seedcamp. On his panel will be Jean Judes the CEO of Beit Issie Shapiro, Ben Robins a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire Adaptive Systems Group, Haqeeq Bostan the Communications Director, Health and Wellbeing for PIPs at Capita, and Jamie Munro a Senior Trainer in Inclusive Technology.

It’s free and open to all, you can get tickets here.

Why are mobile prices going up?

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A row of phones

Fuss Free Phones has a standard tariff of £20 a month for 600 minutes. It’s not a contract and you can leave at any time. We never charge more without asking first. We think charging is all about making sure your battery will power your phone, not how to get more money out of you.

Some time ago there was a brouhaha over mobile networks tying people into a contract and then putting up the price.

Fuss Free Phones doesn’t do any of these things. We don’t have contracts, we don’t tie you in and most of all we don’t put up prices.

When people complained about what the other networks were doing they reached an accommodation with Ofcom: price could go up but only in line with inflation. This was deemed “not increasing the price”.

But we keep things much more simple than that: no price rises.

It’s not the way other networks behave. Anyone on an EE tariff will recently have had a letter explaining that the prices are going up, by as much as 60 per cent. And Vodfone has increased prices too.

This is a very strange thing to happen for a number of reasons.

Mobile phone call costs don’t generally go up. A major cost in running a phone network is computer power and that just gets cheaper and cheaper. When I was a kid, in the late 1970s  I had a home computer and bough 24k of memory for it because it was a bargain price of £1 a kilobyte. Now memory costs £1 for 3 Gigabytes. That’s three million times cheaper. Hard disks have been even more spectacular and processor power and internet bandwidth have all got cheaper and faster.

Another reason that it’s strange that EE has put its prices up is the lack of inflation. The traditional reason that things get more expensive is that they just do. Inflation means that everything costs more and everyone gets paid a little more.

But we live in a strange time of almost no inflation. Maybe fractions of a per cent, certainly not the 60 per cent EE customers have just got wind of.

But most surprising of all is that when BT bought EE the company didn’t see price rises coming. Indeed it expected the opposite – prices falling. When BT was asking shareholders to recommend the deal the advice was to expect prices to fall.

In a document sent out to shareholders prior  to a meeting on Thursday 30 April 2015 to agree the purchase  BT said

“Increased competition has led to a decline in the prices which EE charges for its mobile services and is expected to lead to further declines in pricing in the future.”

So what has happened to give BT the space to do the opposite? It’s a lack of competition. And this is an un-intended consequence of Ofcom trying to drum up more competition and failing.

The event BT was looking at which it expected to drive prices down was the merger of O2 and Three.

The Spanish owners of O2, Telefonica, want to sell the company. There is more opportunity for them in the South American market and to compete in the UK needs to combine fixed line, broad band and television with mobile. This was not something Telefonica wanted to do. So the deal was agreed with Three, a bunch of people were told that their services were no longer required and Telefonica looked at what to do next.

But then Ofcom stepped in and said that dropping from four networks to three in the UK would be bad for the consumers (and I’ve strong views on why it did this), and even got the European commission on its side.

The result was both O2 and Three not really having their heart in the market and certainly not in the business of cutting prices to compete, especially if the deal might go through and they were just stealing customers from each other.

The only other player, Vodafone, has offered great deals but being beset with both technology and process issues in its customer services it’s been losing customers faster than it’s been gaining them. And has even increased some roaming and picture messaging prices.

So suddenly BT found itself in a place where it didn’t expect to be: able to put up prices. BT is wringing profit out of Ofcom’s Failure.

Here at Fuss Free Phones we won’t do that. We don’t even do the Ofcom approved thing of increasing prices in line with inflation. That’s not to say that our price will always be £20 for 600 minutes, with our telephonist service and the unique no-nuisance calls it’s very hard to do a price per minute comparison, but what we won’t do is tie you into a contract and then change the price.


Simon Rockman

So, it’s not just us (2)

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GoGoGrandparent's webpage

Fuss Free Phones uses humans as the killer app. Our friendly telephonists bridge the technology gap by helping callers out on the phone.

It seems that we are not the only company to have thought of this. The California based  GoGoGrandparent lets people without smartphones use on-demand services like Uber.  Much like the Fuss Free Phones telephonist the company uses real people to answer the phone and provide a service.

The difference however is that while Fuss Free phones makes using a mobile phone simple, GoGoGrandparent makes Uber easy.

When the customer calls GoGoGrandparent the telephonist books an Uber for the customer. For regular journeys there is an automated system, and while this goes against Fuss Free phones philosphy (we don’t have any automated systems) we can appreciate that it’s right for plenty of people as they can have an Uber by just pressing 1 and the GoGoGrandparent system knows where they live or where they have just traveled to.

While Fuss Free Phones is for people who find all mobile phones too, well, fussy, GoGoGrandparent is more for people who find smartphones overly complex.

But there is a lot of similarity between the motivations of the two companies.


Simon Rockman


So, it’s not just us

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This sign on a bus stop vents anger at nuisance calls

Fuss Free Phones created it’s No Nuisance Call service to help customers feel more confident using a mobile phone.

We knew that the big button mobile phones we sell are easy to use, easy to see and easy to hear, but we also know that many people find nuisance calls intimidating. And if we want customers us use their Fuss Free Phone regularly they need to keep it on and keep it with them.

Solving the nuisance call problem was part of our overall package of mobile phones for seniors. But it is clear nuisance calls have become  a plague, and this is demonstrated by a leaflet sellotaped to a bus stop not far from the Fuss Free Phones office in Old Street. Maybe a little more punctuation would have helped and learning how to spell “bane” would have given it more credibility but the low production values and extensive use of capital letters add a certain dynamic which chimes well with the message. At least we’ve been saved the over-use of exclamation marks.

We hate nuisance calls but it’s good to know that it’s not just us.

Simon Rockman

The Fuss Free Phones Guide Dog

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Meet Nick. The Fuss Free Phones Guide Dog.  Through the work Fuss Free Phones has been doing with the RNIB we’ve got to meet a lot of guide dogs and they are great to be around.

Our work with blind people as Fuss Free Phones customers has taught me that while an easy to use phone with a personal service and telephonists can be a massive aid to independence there are other aspects of life that even a simple phone can’t solve.

The people who work with guide dogs describe them as a “mobility aid”.

At the recent Vision Strategy event I met someone from The Guide Dogs Association who explained that when dogs are not in school they live with a family. To Nick is not a sponsored dog but a boarder.Guide Dog Nick

The best known way this is done is Puppy Walking, and that’s what Emily, the telephonist you see on the right of this page with the caption “A Personal Touch”. She puppy walked a dog called Harley.

Nick is a bit older than a puppy walked dog. He’s been through ten weeks of training at The Guide Dogs association and is now in advanced training at its centre in Euston.  I drop him off for school in the morning and then come to work at Fuss Free Phones which is ten minutes away. Then at the end of the day I pick him up and take him back to my home.

It means that I get to enjoy having a dog when I’m not at work and don’t have to worry about leaving him during the day.  It does however mean that I’ll only be with him for a few months before he goes off to work with a client.

I’ve also got to realise that Nick can’t be treated the way I would a pet dog. He’s not allowed treats at the table, to scavenge for food, upstairs at home or to sit on the furniture.  The blind client he goes to live with later may make different decisions but I’ve got to re-enforce the training the Guide dogs association gives him and that’s my little way of “putting something back”.

One of the advantages of having a guide dog in training is that I will be able to take him into places like shopping centres which usually band dogs. While they have to take guide dogs, a trainee, without a harness, is only allowed in under goodwill but who would turn down a cute Labrador?


Simon Rockman

London Tube leaves blind users in the dark

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And it’s the fault of technology

A Tfl help point with the caption "not working"Thanks to training I’ve had with the Guide Dogs Association I was able to help a blind user on the tube last night. I’m planning to become a guide dog boarder, looking after a dog in training when it’s not at school The training day at Euston was wonderful and uplifting.

The Association had a lot of praise for Transport for London. But my experience last night shows a combination of station staff cuts and failure to understand technology has left the service wanting for visually impaired people.

I got off a train at Finchley Central station last night and saw a man with a white stick, I felt  excited for the opportunity to put my guide dog training into real live use. When I greeted him in the way I’d been taught he said: “are you station staff”, which I took to mean I’d got things right. I explained that I was a Guide Dogs Volunteer and took him to his platform.

That’s where it all started to go wrong. We’d been taught that a member of staff at the departing platform could radio ahead to have someone meet a blind person at the other end and greet them. So I took my new friend to the information button and pressed Emergency. This was a mistake. I should have pressed the Information button! A loud alarm went off. “Well” said my friend, “At least they will get here faster.”

Cute guide dog puppyThey didn’t.

We waited, and kept waiting. Eventually I went off to look for someone – letting my charge know what I was doing.

The only person working at the station was struggling to cope with customers who couldn’t use the machines, and other things requiring her attention. She’d not heard the alarm and when she finally agreed to come help the blind customer, he had gone.

This has wider implications. Not just that Transport For London was letting down blind customers, and there would be no one to help at the other end, but that anyone could have had an emergency and pressed the button. A passenger on the track, heart attack, or a rare Abra Pokemon in the waiting room!  And no one would have come.

So this morning I spoke to the station staff as a kind of post mortem. I explained that I worked for Fuss Free Phones, which has a service which makes mobile phones easy to use, with big button phones, and that I had been to The Guide Dogs Association for training.

The staff were sympathetic and explained that when someone presses the alarm button it first rings in the station office. When it’s been ringing for two minutes the call goes through to a central control room. Unfortunately the staff are prohibited from going into the office so they will never hear it. In this case the central control room didn’t respond either. Perhaps they looked on the CCTV and saw no one there, perhaps they didn’t. Whatever the case they left the alarm ringing.

Lady with white stick on tube escalatorI can understand that the move to oyster cards and contactless credit cards has meant the demise of ticket offices. And I can understand the customer service benefits of insisting that staff are always out and about, not sitting in the office.

What I can’t understand is why Transport for London has let the emergency link fall in a hole. Transport for London has a network-wide communications system called Connect. It’s old and creaking – having been conceived in 1999 – but it works. There is no, technical reason why  the emergency button on the platform could not be linked to it. Connect uses the same TETRA  technology as is used by the emergency services. It’s got all kinds of elegant systems to instantly call one person or a group of people. There is no reason why the button on the station platform could not be in multiple groups which signaled all the people who were on-duty at Finchley Central, all the people on nearby platforms and a central emergency center all at the same time.

This might be over the top for just one blind person needing to get off at right place at their destination stop, but then I’d pressed the Emergency button, not the information one. That could be linked to fewer, more relevant users, maybe just the people at that station or a central information person looking after the whole network.

As the founder of Fuss Free Phones I have 20 years experience in the mobile industry and in the past few years have been tailoring my product to meet the needs of blind people as well. Fuss Free Phones is working closely with the RNIB to provide its easy to use mobile phone service to blind users. Blind users are often not able to use the latest smartphones and require a more tactile and more intelligent solution. AI is not quite there yet.Guide dog user on the underground

I have been researching the needs of the older users for more than 15 years, but our work with the visually impaired is new ground.  I do have a little insight however; one day I woke up  without vision in my left eye. Thanks to the team at Moorfields Eye Hospital, my retina was reattached within the day. However, this experience was invaluable as it save me a taste of how frightening it might be to lose my sight. With Fuss Free Phones blind people can use a mobile phone and by pressing a big button be connected with a human telephonist around the clock. The telephonist manages a directory, screens inbound calls, connects outbound calls, and sends and receives texts. This person can look up any information on the internet and provide real help if needed.

Our blind and visually impaired customers love the service. We regularly receive phone calls telling us how liberating the service is, providing freedom and peace of mind. We’ve even had forms back with smiley faces drawn on them. I bet the other networks don’t get that.

Simon Rockman

Note: If you want to get involved, Guide Dogs For The Blind, in addition to running the dogs department, also teaches sighted people how to lead the visually impaired. It’s worth watching their videos so that you know what to do to help a blind person.


Nuisance Calls

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Nuisance calls are the bane of eveyday lifeHow many times have you rushed to the phone only to be greeted by someone trying to sell you something you didn’t want? Or opened a text from a stranger claiming to know about your recent car accident?

Almost all of us have received nuisance calls and texts at some point and a recent study reveals the extent of the problem. New findings from Which? reveal that thousands receive 26 nuisance calls per month and one in ten receive more than 60.  And unfortunately, it’s the elderly who often bear the brunt of nuisance calls, receiving an average of 39 per month – with a worrying one in five receiving over 60.

While for most people nuisance calls are merely an annoyance, for the elderly and vulnerable they can harmful and dangerous. Just last month it was revealed that hundreds of mobile phone owners had been hit by a new 0845 scam in which people, many of them elderly, return premium rate missed calls and are defrauded out of hundreds of pounds.  And in a particularly disturbing recent case, a conman tricked a 75-year old woman out of £200,000 by posing as a bank fraud investigator.

So what can be done to help protect yourself and loved ones from nuisance calls? Here are five tips to help make them a thing of the past:

  1. Don’t call back missed calls from unknown numbers or click links sent to you in text messages or emails from unknown senders. If someone wants to speak to you, they will leave you a message!
  2. If someone calls requesting personal or banking details, look up the number on your bank’s website or your credit card and call back
  3. Register the callers with Ofcom’s Nuisance Call tool:
  4. Register your number with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS)
  5. If you’re worried about older relatives and friends who might get confused by these scams, consider using a phone service that screens inbound communication. Fuss Free Phones’ live telephonists screen inbound calls and texts and only connect legitimate callers

In summary, the safest bet is not to engage when it comes to sharing personal details with unknown callers. If they really need your information for a legitimate transaction, they will send a letter or inform you via appropriate channels of communication.

Call the Fuss Free Phones team to learn more about how its call centre staff are trained to mitigate nuisance calls and scammers.

Nicola Ennis

Fuss Free Phones invents texting for the blind

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RNIB web pageFuss Free Phones has become the first mobile phone service to be recommended by the RNIB. The service is now available through the RNIB website and by calling the RNIB.

Every day, 100 people in the UK start to lose their sight.  It’s a scary statistic, but it’s even more frightening for the people involved. The RNIB does an amazing job of supporting people with sight lost and looks to particularly help and reassure those who are newly blind.

The support the RNIB offers comes in the form of not just help and advice for the visually impaired and their carers, it also sells a wide range of products. Fuss Free Phones is the first service the organisation has offered to the people it helps.

The RNIB and Fuss Free Phones have been working together for the past year to make sure the service is right for visually impaired customers. This has included providing audio instructions and braille copies of the documentation. One of the major innovations Fuss Free Phones has introduced is it’s “Text messaging for the blind”.  Customers can send a text message by pressing the button on the back of the phone, speaking to a friendly telephonist and asking them to send a text. This has long been a Fuss Free Phones service, however the technology Fuss Free Phones has developed especially for RNIB customers is the ability to receive incoming texts by having them read out by a telephonist.

The customer can opt to have incoming messages sent to the handset in the normal manner, or to a telephonist, or both. If the incoming text is received by the Fuss Free Phones call centre a telephonist will phone the customer and read out the text. The customer can then ask the telephonist to type a reply and wait for a response.

The service is free as part of the £20 Fuss Free Phones monthly package. Customers get unlimited texts and 600 minutes of call time. The new service is available now, to all Fuss Free Phones customers, not just those who have bought the service through the RNIB.

Along with No-nuisance calls, the Texting for the blind, is one of an on-going programme of worlds’ firsts being developed by Fuss Free Phones with its technology partners.

You can find out more about the Fuss Free Phones Service from the RNIB here.

Will the new Nokia show maturity?

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Microsoft has announced that it is parting company with its Nokia feature phone division, licencing it back to Finland. Fuss Free Phones hopes that the new company HMD global Oy will understand the value the Nokia brand has to the older generation.

Nokia needs to embrace the older generation


HMD global Oy is formed of Nokia veterans, and they will take on the mantle of making mass market phones and tablets. Both feature phones – that is basic bar and flip phones – and smartphones using Android.

The feature phone market is traditionally seen as basic communication for emerging countries. Phones engineered to a price, often selling for under £5. Adding the Nokia name adds huge credibility. In India the word “Nokia” is a colloquialism for mobile phone, much like Hoover, Tannoy or Kleenex might be used for all vacuum cleaners, loudspeakers or tissues.

It would be a shame however if Nokia failed to grasp the opportunity to make phones for older people. The reputation for making mobiles easy to use, lingers. It’s something which dates back to the work Christian Lindholm  did in the 1990s. He pioneered Nokia’s Series 30 and Navi-key software. Internally it was castigated as being so easy to use it was called the “Bimbo phone”.

But Easy To Use is A Good Thing.

What Fuss Free Phones would like to see is a new Nokia take this spirit and build phones for people who struggle with technology. There are some experts in the field, chief among them Doro, but there is also Emporia and the Samsung phones built for the US company Jitterbug.  And there are lessons a new Nokia could take from all of them. To build on the mantra “Easy to see, easy to hear, easy to use”, would in the principals of inclusive design mean that phones which were optimised for older people would be better for everyone.

When Microsoft acquired big chunks of Nokia, it was always a bit strange that the deal included Feature phones, and not the HERE mapping division. Nokia in Finland subsequently sold HERE to a consortium of car companies. This new deal helps put things back to where they should have been.

Naturally Fuss Free Phones would want to see a big button on the back of the phone but there are a lot of much more subtle things which would make a phone even simpler. A clam with deeply dished buttons which stood proud when the clam was open, good use of colour and extra large speakers and microphones would all help.

Previously Nokia has shied away from the oldsters market: scared that a fuddy duddy impression would tarnish the cool youth image which brought us such hits as the Nokia N-gage.

Hopefully an older and wiser Nokia will understand that there is a huge market for older and wiser customers and we’ll see a Fuss Free Nokia in the future.

Ofcom issues advice on Nuisance calls

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Even stopping nuisance calls can be a nuisance. In a new video Ofcom advises four courses of action. The UK’s telco regulator says that if you want to reduce your nuisance calls you should check the opt-in clauses from any marketing you are subject to be they online or people in the street. You should also register for the Telephone Preference Service, speak to your telco about blocking options and then when this fails complain about the callers to ICO and Ofcom.

We followed Ofcom’s advice and spoke to Three about its services for blocking nuisance calls. Three’s advice was to use a smartphone feature to block individual numbers, to report individual numbers to them and if they were premium rate they would investigate (but not block them) and to register with the telephone preference  service. Ultimately Three won’t block nuisance calls and told us that no telephone company will do that. Well, Fuss Free Phones will.

The problem with Ofcom and Three recommending the Telephone Preference Service is that there are too many loopholes. Companies are only prohibited from calling you if they are trying to sell you something directly. So a company can “survey” you, and ask something like “do you think you are paying too much for Gas and Electricity”. When you say “Yes”, that is counted as expressing an interest. The call centre can then sell your details as an opt-in customer to another company which sells gas and electricity services. So you get not one nuisance call but two.

And even without this loophole, the Telephone Preference Service only has jurisdiction in the UK. So overseas companies, using cheap internet telephony, can call as much as they like, impervious to the UK regulations.

Naturally the best solution is Fuss Free Phones’ no-nuisance call service. Ofcom warns that telcos may charge for their call blocking service but with Fuss Free Phones, “free” is our middle name and we don’t charge for our No Nuisance Calls.

We did however hear of one, now sadly defunct, idea which we rather liked. A friend of Fuss Free Phones used to have a premium rate 07050 number. Given the mess that surrounds UK numbering this looks to the un-initiated like a mobile number. So the friend would court nuisance callers give them his “mobile” number and then earn money from the nuisance calls.

As much fun as it might be to scam the scammers, Fuss Free Phones has a simpler course of action than Ofcoms’ plan to reduce nuisance calls. Just press the button on the back of the phone, speak to a friendly telephonist and say “I don’t want any nuisance calls”. And that’s it. No TPS, no complicated settings on your phone, no call blockers or having to complain. And unlike any other service you can be sure that the people who you do need to speak to can always get through.