Millions in UK struggling to pay internet and phone bills, says Ofcom

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Almost a fifth of UK households have struggled to pay their TV, internet and phone bills this year, with some resorting to cutting spend on food and clothes to make payments, according to research from Ofcom that highlights the pressure the pandemic has put on people’s finances.

Research conducted by the telecoms regulator found that 4.7m homes had experienced difficulty paying their telecoms bills in 2020. Of those, more than 1m have cut back spending on items such as food or clothes.

The coronavirus crisis has prompted a surge in usage of services such as broadband and mobile phones, as millions of people shifted to home working and lockdown restrictions shut down high streets across the country.

“Lockdown has laid bare our dependence on a reliable internet connection,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s network and communications group director. “So it’s important that affordable options are available so everyone can stay connected, particularly those who have fallen on hard times.”

The nation’s biggest mobile, pay-TV and telecoms companies have tried to support vulnerable customers, such as offering low-cost packages for people on benefits. However, Ofcom said those companies could do more to help those facing financial difficulties.

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“While we welcome the support companies have provided customers this year, some people continue to face challenges and it is clear providers can do more to support customers who are in financial difficulties,” Fussell said.

Ofcom called on telecoms firms to offer affordable tariffs, specifically targeting customers on low incomes, while those that do offer them, such as BT and Virgin Media, were urged to better promote them.

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Alistair Cromwell, the acting chief executive at Citizens Advice, said: “Since the March lockdown began, internet access has been vital to home working, running small businesses, accessing essential services like healthcare and continuing education. It is crucial that those who are struggling financially are not locked out.”

Ofcom said given the issues raised by its research, and the challenging economic outlook, it intended to conduct further research and publish a report on the affordability and debt next year.

“Should providers not address our concerns through their current levels of support to customers in financial difficulty, we will consider further action,” the regulator said. “This could include working with the government to determine whether an industry-wide, regulated social tariff is necessary.”