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How Big Broadband ISPs Handle COVID-19 Non-Payment of Bills

Friday, May 15th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 4,519
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As the impact of the national COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis and lockdown begins to bite then more and more customers of UK broadband ISPs may start to run into financial difficulties, which can make it harder to pay their bills. We take a look at how the market’s largest providers are handling such situations.

The official stance – as supported by Ofcom and the Government (DCMS) – was agreed in March (here), which among other measures saw all of the United Kingdom’s major broadband ISPs and mobile network operators vaguely agree to help “customers who find it difficult to pay their bill as a result of Covid-19 to ensure that they are treated fairly and appropriately supported.”

However, there’s not a lot of information in the public domain concerning how ISPs may approach such a difficult situation with bill payments, which is perhaps understandable as they’re commercial businesses (not charities) and will be wary of abuse. Customer situations can also vary and providers need some flexibility in how they adapt to different circumstances.

Nevertheless some providers, such as KCOM in Hull (East Yorkshire), have gone so far as to clearly commit that they won’t “disconnect” customers for non-payment (this position is reviewed at the end of each month), but others have remained cagey around the detail of their response.

On top of that it doesn’t help that some ISPs appear to have several COVID-19 information pages and announcements, which makes it difficult to know if you’ve got all of the information or not. In any case we decided to contact BT, Sky Broadband, Virgin Media and TalkTalk to ask them directly.

BT

According to the CEO of BT (EE) Consumer, Marc Allera: “We know this is already a stressful time for customers worried about their finances, so we’ve put in place a dedicated team to support customers that need extra help with their bills. If a customer contacts us with money worries related to Coronavirus, we’ll work out what works best for them.”

We did press BT on what this actually meant but they continued to echo that “customers who are experiencing financial difficulty as a result of Covid-19, including whether ill or on furlough, are encouraged to contact us directly so we can work out a solution that is best for them.”

However, unofficially, we are aware from our sources and subscriber feedback that BT have relaxed demands for non-payment post-COVID-19 (this seems to lasts for around 90 days rather than the usual 30). Support staff have also been instructed to encourage customers with difficulty paying their bills to pay what they can, when they can, and any money owed will then be carried over to their next bill.

Sky Broadband

Sky gave one of the clearest responses, albeit largely because existing customers and other sources had already helped us to piece together what they were doing (i.e. introducing a new Sky Basics package).

In short, if a TV customer is struggling to pay their bills due to COVID-19 then they can get an extra £5 off for three months without taking out a new contract. Some restrictions on content, functionality (e.g. Sky Q customers wouldn’t have access to content on multi-room boxes and may have to return them within 90 days) and other caveats may exist.

As for broadband and phone, we understand the plan gives them three months of essentials broadband (ADSL) and line rental for just £10 a month or £18 on either FTTC (VDSL2) or G.fast. None of this causes a re-contract.

Customers will usually need to provide evidence that they’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19 (e.g. put on Furloughed scheme, too sick to work due to the virus etc.) before being put on the plan.

Virgin Media

Virgin Media’s official COVID-19 page merely says they’re “looking at ways we can help our customers if they find it difficult to pay their [bills]” and sadly, at the time of writing, the operator had not responded to our earlier hails for further information. However our sources suggest that customers in this predicament may be temporarily downgraded to a special 20Mbps broadband, phone and TV plan.

TalkTalk

The official COVID-19 page from TalkTalk.. talks about offering a “range of alternative payment options” but didn’t initially provide any indication of what those might be, although thankfully the ISP has now provide some additional details after we asked.

On top of more general measures, such NOT adding inflation to standard bills from this April and continuing to send end-of-contract notifications (other ISPs have paused this due to strains on their support teams), TalkTalk has also “extended payment windows for struggling customers with a series of measures in place and payment plans to prevent any service disruption” (requests can be made and more details provided via the ISP’s online MyAccount page, or you could try contacting their online chat agents for help).

Furthermore the ISP has “promised” that customers “should not fear a loss of service if they’re struggling to pay for reasons associated with COVID-19” (i.e. no disconnection). The usual penalty fees and debt collection chasers also appear to have been paused, although related payment extensions will eventually come to an end (it’s unclear precisely how long these last) and customers will be notified of that.

Please do remember that the help ISPs are able to offer is ONLY intended for those most in need (i.e. if you really, truly need it urgently) and is a short-term fix that will soon end. Anybody simply viewing such aid as an extra discount, while still having the capacity to pay their bills, would be doing a massive disservice to those in a more serious situation.

Obviously it goes without saying that if masses of people were to suddenly take some of these offers (i.e. high take-up by those who don’t strictly need it) then the ISPs may struggle to give it to people most in need. Likewise many ISPs are currently operating at reduced capacity in call centres and, once again, people are encouraged to only call if it’s truly urgent.

We should point out that plenty of providers are still doing lots of other things to help customers during the COVID-19 crisis, such as giving away unlimited usage, free calls, broadband speed upgrades, premium TV channels and so forth. Most of those may only last for a limited time but they’re also not cheap things to do and ISPs still have their own bills to pay. People in the NHS also have lots of additional discounts.

Otherwise please remember that the COVID-19 situation is a fast moving crisis, which seems to result in changes occurring almost every week. As such what is written above may soon change again or even end. Some praise should be given here as a lot of broadband providers have really gone above and beyond the call of duty in their response.

Separately we’ve also heard that some ISPs may consider a limited write-off of customer debt in the event that people struggle to pay or have to cancel early, but that will usually be on a case-by-case basis and is hard to pin down with specific providers (i.e. we can’t confidently say how each will approach this, so don’t just assume it’ll happen).

Leave a Comment
4 Responses
  1. Avatar Arthur says:

    I lost my job not worked since March telephoned virginmedia in March the Indian person told me if you don’t pay we will cut you of I removed my phone service vergin sent me email I’ll be paying £18 from May I was happy
    Yesterday they sent new bill for May they want £53 phoned again no help offered waiting on call back promised not received

  2. Avatar Juniper Jungle says:

    Any Vodafone customer struggling I would urge to get in contact with customer services. They have put in place support for those suffering the negative economic effects of Coronavirus, such as payment plans lasting upto 6 months to suspending mobile services for a number of months. They haven’t published anyting in writing as it very much is case by case, but they have flexible options……though services still have to be paid for at some point.

  3. Avatar Amanda Jones says:

    i rang EE today and explained was struggling to pay my bill she said you have to pay that is the end of it

  4. Avatar sarah mcgarry says:

    sky no help at all cut off all services after telling me they wouldn’t over the phone and apparently they never said that, so i have now asked for the recording taking this further. we are still in isolation due to my daughter heart condition. now my son can not do his home schooling either

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