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One in Five Households Struggling to Afford Broadband, TV, and Mobile Services

Up to one-fifth of UK households have struggled to afford internet, TV, and phone services over the last year, with many forced to cancel services or reduce their spending on essentials such as food and clothing to afford the bills, new research by Ofcom reveals.

The regulator’s annual affordability report draws attention to the tough choices made by households whose finances are under increasing pressure.

“People rely on their broadband for staying in touch, working and learning from home,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s group director of network and communications. “But for those who are really struggling with rising bills, every penny counts.”

That includes the 1.1 million households, or 5%, struggling to pay for their broadband each month. A similar number have difficulty with their mobile phone bills.

With telecoms providers planning inflation-busting price hikes of up to 10% this spring and the cost of other essentials including energy bills also climbing, more houses could soon face similar challenges, the regulator warns. 

Ofcom notes that recent price hikes have outstripped an expected rise in benefits such as Universal Credit, with more than four million homes facing reductions in their income in real terms. 

“This could increase the numbers of households that face affordability challenges in accessing internet services and further increase the challenges of those who already face affordability issues,” the report warns.

However, many eligible households aren’t taking advantage of cheaper social tariffs offered by some telecoms providers, Ofcom found.

Currently, seven broadband providers—BT, Virgin Media, Community Fibre, Vodafone, KCOM, G.Network, and Hyperoptic —offer discounted tariffs to households on low incomes or benefits. Many of these offers were launched over the last 18 months in response to the regulator’s encouragement. Ofcom says that these plans can halve a household’s broadband bills, for annual savings of £144.

But just 55,000 households have taken advantage of these offers, just 1.2% of the 4.2 million homes eligible. Ofcom attributed the low take-up to providers' failure to promote the social tariffs to eligible households through advertising or price comparison sites.

“Special discounts can make all the difference, and too many broadband firms are failing either to promote their social tariff or to offer one at all,” Fussell said. “We expect companies to step up support for those on low incomes, and we’ll be watching their response.”

Ofcom cited low adoption of social tariffs last year when it decided not to require broadband providers to offer a social tariff. Instead, it urged them to “improve how they promote” their voluntary social tariffs. 

Some telecoms companies are taking steps to better promote these discounted offers. BT announced this week that its Home Essentials tariff, which offers fibre-optic broadband for between £15 and £20 per month, is now being sold in its 550 high street shops for the first time. The plan is available to all households on Universal Credit and some legacy benefits.

Tania Caporaso, Director of BT Customer Care, said: “We’re urging anyone who qualifies for our at-cost, social tariff to get in touch, whether that’s on the phone or in one of our stores, to take advantage of BT Home Essentials, which has become a lifeline for many who want to stay connected for whatever reason that may be while they are out of work or unable to work.”

Meanwhile, BT subsidiary Openreach, which owns and maintains much of the UK’s broadband infrastructure, is waiving the connection fee it charges ISPs using their network when they connect a vulnerable household—savings it encourages them to pass onto the consumer.

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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