The affordability crisis has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced the income of many while making us more dependent on telecom services for work, school, entertainment and keeping in touch with family and friends.
Overall, nearly five million (~4.7 million) households reported at least one affordability issue with their communication services in the last month. 10% of households with pay-TV subscriptions reported difficulty paying the bills; 6% said they struggled to afford their fixed broadband connections and 5% said mobile phone bills were the issue.
Customers struggling to afford their telecoms services have downgraded to cheaper packages or tariffs (11% of households) or, more seriously, reduced spending on other items such as food and clothes (5%), cancelled a service (4%), missed a payment (2%) or changed a payment method (2%).
Some groups are more likely to struggle to afford their telecoms services, including those with someone currently unemployed or looking for work (38%), young people aged 18-24 (29%) and those with impacting or limiting health conditions (29%).
Telecoms providers have introduced a variety of support measures during the pandemic, including committing to not disconnect users or extending discounts. Additionally, many ISPs and mobile operators already offer social tariffs which can reduce costs for vulnerable customers.
For example, BT offers its Basic plan, offering broadband and landline calling for £10.07 per month. In 2021, the operator will offer the plan to all recipients of Universal Credit.
However, Ofcom believes telecoms providers aren’t doing enough to keep their services affordable for customers in financial difficulty. The regulator will conduct further research into affordability and debt in the sector during 2021 and could work with the government to devise an “industry-wide regulated social tariff.”
BT, the country’s largest ISP and a Universal Service Provider (USP), emphasised the efforts it is already making to support vulnerable customers, during the pandemic and beyond.
A spokesperson for the company said: “We’re here for customers who are worried about their finances and have been working hard to support those who tell us they need help with their bills. We offer a low cost landline and broadband package specially for those on low income [BT Basic] and we’re currently improving this for 2021. More people will be able to benefit as we’re extending eligibility to include everyone on Universal Credit.
“We also offer support to customers in a number of ways including giving unlimited data, texts and calls to vulnerable customers and unlimited mobile data to NHS staff. We have also permanently removed usage limits on all our broadband packages to help customers stay connected.”
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