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1 in 6 Brits Struggling to Afford Broadband

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With broadband more important than ever for work, education and staying in touch with family and friends, more than one in six people are struggling to afford their connections, Citizens Advice warns.

The consumer advocates asked 1,646 adults about their broadband bills and finances earlier this month and found many are struggling to make ends meet, with telecoms bills hitting hard. It’s now urging broadband providers to launch cheaper tariffs for low-income and struggling households and suggests the government and Ofcom could make this compulsory.

The recent survey update research the charity conducted last summer, which found that those on means-tests benefits are more likely (28%) to face difficulties paying for broadband, compared to the general public (16%).

People with children, disabled people, people from Black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds, those who were shielding and young people are in particular struggling with their broadband bills. 

Citizens Advice has calculated that upwards of 2.3 million had fallen behind on their broadband bills by the end of December 2020, risking disconnection and becoming even more isolated during the third coronavirus lockdown.

Ned Dukes, community advice worker at Citizens Advice Haringey, said: “Broadband allows people to be part of society. So much of the support is now online, as well as job applications and job interviews. Without access to the internet, people are effectively locked out of key services and everything they need to live a full and proper life.

“But for people on welfare benefits, every single decision about how they spend £1 can make a difference. Broadband can be incredibly expensive.”

Alistair Cromwell, acting chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “The pandemic has cemented the fact that broadband is an essential utility. It is not a luxury for those who can afford it. 

“Without broadband we struggle to teach our children, order food and medicines, work or search for a job.”

Part of the problem is the heavy burden of broadband bills for low-income households, the charity said. According to Ofcom data, in 2019 average household spending on broadband was £37.25 per month. This is around 4% of the lowest income decile households; disposable income. By comparison, £37 is just 1% of the disposable income of the average household.

To reduce the burden on these households for an increasingly essential service, ISPs should launch affordable tariffs. Currently, just three of the 13 largest ISPs offer these services, including BT, which this year will expand access to its £10.07/month broadband and landline calling plan to all recipients of Universal Credit.

In November, Virgin Media launched its Essential broadband plan, offering speeds of 15Mbps for £15/month, available to all Universal Credit claimants, while Vodafone’s brand VOXI is offering jobseekers unlimited calls, texts and data for six months for just £10/month.

The government and Ofcom could “fast-track” the launch of affordable tariffs by making them compulsory for ISPs, under European Electronic Communications Code which was put into law in the UK in December.

“While the government has provided free laptops and mobile data to help children study at home, these are ultimately just a sticking plaster. To tackle the digital divide, it must take urgent action to ensure everyone can afford their broadband, no matter which provider they are with,” Cromwell said.

Research from regulator Ofcom released in December painted a similar picture about broadband affordability, finding that nearly one-fifth (19%) of UK households report at least one affordability issue with their telecoms services, with 6% struggling with bills for fixed broadband.

During the 2019 general election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour said, if elected, it would give all households access to free full-fibre broadband—a plan widely mocked in the media as “broadband communism.”

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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