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Following a government summit, the UK’s biggest broadband and mobile operators have agreed to a raft of new commitments to further help customers with the rising cost of living, putting forward measures to ensure people struggling with bills due to the ongoing economic crisis can continue to use telecommunications services.
The summit saw senior management figures representing the vast majority of the UK telecoms market – including BT Group, Openreach, Virgin Media O2, Vodafone, Three, TalkTalk and Sky – sign pledges to allow customers struggling with bills to move to cheaper packages without charge or penalty, or agreeing manageable payment plans and options to improve existing low-cost offers.
Landline and broadband social tariffs have been offered by BT, Virgin Media O2 and KCom for several years, but since 2021, there has been a threefold rise in companies voluntarily offering their own social tariffs – with Sky, Now Broadband, County Broadband and others coming forward – after the government stepped in to negotiate the low-cost deals.
Social tariff offers are available to eligible people in 99% of the UK, and could represent a saving of more than 50% (around £180 per year) against the average cost of broadband.
In January 2021, the UK’s mobile operators increased data allowances on mobile devices to support disadvantaged children, and joined the UK government’s Get Help with Technology programme, which is designed to expand temporary allowances for mobile phone users on certain networks so that children and young people can access remote education if their face-to-face education is disrupted.
In a letter sent in April 2022 to the bosses of BT Group, Virgin Media O2, Hyperoptic, KCom, G.Network and Community Fibre, digital minister Nadine Dorries asked for an outline of their plans to promote social tariffs and estimates of take-up over the coming 12 months. These companies all offer social tariff products to low-income households, with some providers offering deals from as low as £10 per month.
Vodafone – via its Voxi brand – recently launched the first mobile social tariff.
The operator’s commitments, which take effect immediately, will see all providers agree to support customers who may be struggling with the cost of living and treat them with compassion, understanding and as individuals.
All providers said they will now commit to supporting customers who are struggling with their bills and offer them ways to keep them connected, such as allowing them to move to cheaper packages without charge or penalty, or agreeing manageable payment plans.
All operators also committed to protecting the connectivity of customers known to be vulnerable as a priority. Providers – supported by the UK government – have committed to raising awareness of low-cost products to those claiming Universal Credit. This means anyone struggling to pay their broadband or mobile bill as a result of global price rises can expect support from their provider if they ask for it.
Mobile providers have in addition committed to considering more ways to help their customers, including exploring tariffs, options to improve existing low cost offers and increasing the promotion of existing deals.
Hamish MacLeod, chief executive of Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, said: “Mobile operators welcome the commitments agreed upon today with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, which build on offers already in place to help the most vulnerable. We welcomed the chance to discuss with the government not only how to raise awareness of such schemes but also to set out the further steps being taken to support those struggling with their bills.”
Andrew Glover, chair of the Internet Service Providers’ Association, said: “The telecoms sector knows that people are facing real challenges with the cost-of-living crisis. Our members are determined to do what they can to help their customers through this period and, together with government, we will work to raise greater awareness of the support available.
“These commitments, along with the social tariffs that are available from many members, will hopefully help people in need at this challenging time,” he added. “We encourage customers who are struggling with their bills to reach out to their broadband provider to get help.”