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1 in 6 UK People Struggle to Afford Broadband During Lockdown

Thursday, January 28th, 2021 (12:01 am) - Score 624
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A new survey from the Citizens Advice agency has claimed that more than 1 in 6 UK adults are “struggling to afford their broadband during the third lockdown.” As a result the charity wants cheaper ISP packages to be made available for those on low-income benefits or other vulnerable groups.

The agency claims to have found that during the first lockdown, certain groups, including people with children, disabled people, people from Black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds, those who were shielding and young people were particularly struggling with their broadband bill. Likewise it stated that customers in receipt of low-income benefits, such as Universal Credit, were “almost twice as likely” to struggle to pay their bill.

Meanwhile an ICM Unlimited survey of 6,004 people (representative sample) found that 4.4% of the respondents were behind on their broadband bill, which the charity equates to reflect around 2.3 million people. As a result Citizens Advice is calling on the UK government and Ofcom to fast-track their “plans” by making it “compulsory for all providers to offer affordable tariffs to people on low-income benefits.

We should point out that such a plan does not yet exist, although the regulator has hinted that this could change during 2021.

Alistair Cromwell, Acting CEO 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.

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.”

As usual it’s easy to suggest such a change, but implementation will be much harder. As we’ve pointed out before, broadband and mobile provision tends to be a commercial business with fairly low margins, which makes it difficult for commercial operators – particularly smaller players – to permanently gift super cheap (loss making) packages to lots of people without putting themselves at risk, or forcing price rises elsewhere. Defining how much speed or data usage is acceptable on such plans is another complex matter to debate.

On the other hand, the idea of offering a low-cost social tariff is nothing new in this market and indeed a few already exist. For example, BT (Basic), Virgin Media (Essential Broadband), KCOM (Flex) and VOXI (For Now) already offer special (social) tariffs that can help financially vulnerable customers to stay connected, although take-up of these remains low.

Stronger advertising of such plans might be a better place to start and indeed Ofcom has already called on providers to pro-actively promote relevant social tariffs (where available) to customers who might be eligible, while “strongly encouraging” other ISPs to “consider introducing them” (here). The regulator has also suggested, as part of their on-going research, that an “industry-wide regulated social tariff” may be considered.

Meanwhile the Chair of the cross-party UK Commons Business Select Committee, Darren Jones MP (Labour), has also proposed a new Private Members Bill to support such a tariff for broadband (here), although it remains to be seen how much support this attracts from MPs (such bills are usually more about inspiring debate than directly creating new laws). Clearly this is something that Citizens Advice are supporting.

UPDATE 9:16am

We’ve had a comment from Ofcom.

An Ofcom spokesperson said:

“We agree it’s vital people can access affordable broadband. Some companies already offer low cost tariffs for certain customers, but we’re pushing all providers to do more to support those in financial difficulty. Although we can’t make social tariffs mandatory without a formal direction from Government, we’re continuing to collect data on affordability and we’re ready to act if more measures are needed.”

The regulator is due to publish further details from their on-going research into this area later in 2021 (i.e. affordability), which may or may not lead to the Secretary of State asking Ofcom to impose such a tariff.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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