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With one in six struggling to afford broadband, it’s vital providers proactively offer help to those who need it

Recent research from Citizens Advice has shown that one in six people are struggling to pay their broadband bills during the third lockdown. The charity found that 16% of adults reported affordability issues with their broadband subscriptions, while more than a quarter (28%) of those on means-tested benefits were finding bills difficult to cope with.

The research also shows that during the first lockdown, 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. And as more UK households have become reliant on internet connections for remote working and home schooling as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, these widespread affordability issues are particularly damaging to the vulnerable.

Alistair Cromwell of Citizens Advice said broadband is no longer a luxury, but an essential service. “Without broadband we struggle to teach our children, order food and medicines, work or search for a job,” he said. “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.”

Perhaps most concerning is that, despite as many as 2.3 million people missing broadband payments, Citizens Advice found that just three of the UK’s 13 largest broadband providers offer cheaper tariffs to low income households. Anita Dougall, CEO and Founding Partner at data company Sagacity, said this is something that needs to change.

“Financially vulnerable people aren’t always forthcoming in asking for help, so providers need to proactively identify them, which poses a serious data challenge,” Dougall said. “Companies often don’t have the expertise to compile and analyse the data they need, and they don’t always have access to external data that can highlight if someone is financially vulnerable, such as benefits, pensions and affordability information.”

The good news, however, is that being in a position where those who require help with their bills are proactively offered it is within reach. “Ultimately, identifying financially vulnerable customers and putting them onto an affordable tariff is possible, as long as providers get their data in order and seek outside help where needed,” Dougall added. “It is vital that they do, especially now that people rely on broadband to work and educate their children. Broadband is no longer a ‘nice to have’; it’s an essential.”