The telecommunications market regulator Ofcom has recently set in motion a series of measures designed to ensure fair treatment of vulnerable TV and broadband customers. Their research has shown that some people are less able to participate in the communications market for several reasons such as age, disability, income or geographic location.
Ofcom has responded to historic exploitation of vulnerable customers by broadband providers with a determined step towards equal access to goods and information in the telecommunications market. We’ve compiled a helpful guide outlining the changes made specifically to help broadband customers, which were brought into place in February 2020.
What is a vulnerable customer?
Customer vulnerability is circumstantial, and may change over time. In its guidance, Ofcom lists some of the most common factors associated with vulnerable customers:
- Age - Older customers might be less adept at dealing with technological issues.
- Disability - Those with physical or mental impairments might well be unable to communicate with a company over the phone or via email.
- Income - Those without much disposable income will have less choice when it comes to finding a broadband deal for them.
- Geographic Location - Some customers live in hard-to-reach places with intermittent internet/phone lines.
This can have a range of consequences, some of which Ofcom point to:
“People may suffer financial detriment, for example if they are a victim of mis-selling or if they are unable to access the best deals. They may become isolated if they are unable to keep in touch with family or friends [or] they may not be able to participate as fully in society as they would wish.”
What is an out-of-contract customer?
When you sign a broadband contract, you’ll probably agree to a 12-18 month deal involving some kind of discount or freebie. Once this contract is up, you will automatically start paying standard non-contract prices for the same service. Historically, your provider might not have contacted you to inform about cheaper broadband deals, happily cashing in on your ignorance.
Ofcom’s review of over 20 million broadband customers in the UK found that out-of-contract customers were paying up to £9 per month more than those who signed a new contract with their existing provider. Furthermore, a third of customers that negotiated with their existing provider were found to pay less than those on introductory deals.
This seems to have been Ofcom’s main focus when considering how to safeguard broadband customers as often the most vulnerable are unaware that this even occurs, or lack the skills, confidence or time to confront their provider and demand assistance.
As of 15 February 2020 your internet provider must tell you when your contract is coming to an end, and must tell you about their best available deals. If you’re already out of contract, then you will be reminded of this and each year you’ll be reminded about your firm’s best deals.
What will broadband providers do to protect vulnerable customers?
In 2019, Ofcom provided telecommunications companies with guidance on fair treatment of vulnerable customers, which you can read here.
Each of the major telecommunications companies composed a response, which can be found in full here.
We’ve summarised some of the major providers’ proposed changes:
- Out-of-contract customers now get access to the same deals as new customers when they take out a new deal with BT.
- They have placed a cap on the difference between in-contract customers pay when contracts expire.
- They will provide one-off reduction for vulnerable out-of-contract customers.
- Out-of-contract customers will now be protected against inflation.
- Customers without access to super fast broadband will pay no more than those with entry-level super fast connection.
- BT Basic + is a newly updated broadband package specifically designed for those receiving benefits. Check the website for more details regarding eligibility.
- Like BT, out-of-contract customers now get access to the same deals as new customers when they take out a new deal with Sky Broadband.
- Newly contracted customers will pay no more than £5 difference when their contract expires.
- Out-of-contract customers now get access to the same deals as new customers when they take out a new deal with TalkTalk.
- They will carry out annual price reviews for their most vulnerable customers.
- Virgin Media also promise to undertake annual price reviews for their most vulnerable customers, ensuring they’re on the best possible deal.
- Out-of-contract EE customers will be protected against above-inflation price rises.
- Like EE, Plusnet will also protect out-of-contract customers from above-inflation price rises.
What can I do to ensure I get a better deal on my broadband?
So, although Ofcom has done lots of the fighting for you, it’s important to be aware of what you can do yourself, especially if you think you classify as a vulnerable customer. To avoid being taken for a ride by your internet provider, you should take the following three steps:
- Check if you’re in or out of contract: Typically you’re tied in for 12-18 months with a single ISP. Ask your provider or check your online account to see if you’re still in contract. If you’ve not spoken in over a year, you’re probably out by now.
- Find the best deals in the market: You can use our broadband comparison tool to see what the best deals are for the coverage you need.
- Ask if your current provider will match it: Companies like to keep your business, so chances are they will be able to match or even beat an offer that you come to them with. Ofcom understands that this might be difficult for more vulnerable customers, so they’ve given some really useful specific guidance on how to communicate with the company.