700,000 households fell behind on their broadband bills during the coronavirus crisis, taking the total number of people in arrears with their internet provider to 2.5 million, new data from Citizens Advice has revealed.
The charity is urging the regulator and government to ensure all broadband providers offer affordable deals for a service it says is an essential utility.
Just as the coronavirus crisis hasn’t impacted all groups equally, telecoms bills fall more heavily on the most vulnerable. Households on Universal Credit are nine times as likely to be in the red with their ISP as those who aren’t on benefits. Young people, aged 18 to 34, are three times as likely to be in arrears as older groups. Similarly, those with children under 18 are three times as likely to be behind on bills as households without children.
But as more households are struggling to afford internet, connectivity has become more important than ever, necessary for work and schooling. UK adults spend now 22 hours online each week.
Broadband is so essential that Citizens Advice’s frontline workers report that households cut back on their other expenses to keep the WiFi on. But some can’t afford an internet connection at all and others risk disconnection because they’re so far behind on their bills.
While some rely on their mobile phones to connect to the internet, Citizens Advice says mobile data isn't a substitute for a home broadband connection: you can't fill out some job applications on a phone and mobile broadband doesn't accommodate multiple people in the same household doing data-intensive tasks like video calling for work or school.
The government and internet providers should do more to keep people online, Citizens Advice says. It’s calling on Ofcom and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to urgently ensure that all broadband providers offer low-cost tariffs for those on low incomes.
In December, Ofcom “strongly urged” all ISPs to consider offering cheaper tariffs for financially struggling households. But it hasn’t made discounted deals a requirement. Currently just BT, Virgin Media, Hyperoptic and KCOM offer social tariffs, usually reserved to people on Universal Credit.
Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Broadband is not a luxury, it’s an essential, like gas and electricity. Lack of broadband creates yet another hurdle in the hunt for jobs, helping children with their schoolwork, and being able to access help, information and fill in forms online. Those with a broadband connection can have a huge head start on those who don’t.
“Ofcom and the government must ensure everyone can afford their broadband, no matter which provider they are with. People shouldn’t be penalised simply because their provider isn’t one of the few firms that offers a cheaper tariff.”
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