Ofcom has warned it could intervene if mobile and broadband providers do not do more to help customer struggling to afford their bills.
The pandemic has elevated the role of connectivity within society over the past 18 months, with many people reliant on communications for work, education, leisure and commerce, as well as to access to public services.
Many of these changing behaviours are likely to remain permanent as lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures are eased, potentially increasing the digital divide between those who can use or afford connectivity and those who cannot.
Ofcom has noted the efforts made by telcos to ensure as many people as possible remained connected during lockdown. Communications providers worked to ensure their networks remained resilient in the face of additional demand, offered additional data where needed, and launched affordable social tariffs.
However, the regulator says that although consumers are receiving more value for money, many people on low incomes are still struggling to pay.
It says just 1% of homes eligible for social tariffs have taken advantage of deals that could save the average household £200 a year, while it also notes the different approaches to dealing with customer debt which has risen from £475 million to £550 million in the past year.
It wants providers to increase awareness of affordable bundles to drive takeup and to see enhanced protections for customers who cannot pay their bills. Should the industry fail to take action, then Ofcom says it could recommend legislation that imposes these obligations by law.
“Many of us take being able to get online and use a mobile phone for granted, but if you’re on a low income or have fallen on hard times, being able to pay for these vital services can be really tough,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Networks and Communications Group Director.
“We’re concerned that many households on the lowest incomes are struggling to stay on top of their bills and providers need to take action to make sure these customers get the help they need.”
BT has already replied to the news, highlighting the initial success of its Home Essentials platform earlier in 2021.
“However, we want we want to encourage more customers who need our help to get in touch,” a BT statement said. “We know from recent research that 54% of people are uncomfortable sharing their problems due to embarrassment and fear particularly when it comes to their finances, and we want to help break down those barriers of asking for help with Here For You – a campaign to raise awareness of the all the support we provide customers who need more help – and we encourage similar approaches across the industry.”
“Fast, reliable connectivity has never been as important as it is today, with millions of people relying upon our networks to get back on their feet after the pandemic – so we launched BT Home Essentials our low-cost fibre package that will now include all customers on Universal Credit, to provide a potential 4.6 million families across the UK with half-price fibre broadband and calls.”