Ofcom has urged providers to do more to support those in straitened financial circumstances, after its own figures found one-fifth of UK households have struggled to pay television, internet and phone bills this year.
The telecoms regulator found that 4.7 million homes experienced paying their telecoms bills in 2020, with more than 1 million of those cutting back on spending on food and clothes in order to do so.
The figures highlight the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, as well as the surge in the use of services such as broadband and mobile phones, as people shift to home working and high streets are shuttered due to shelter-in-place restrictions.
Ofcom network and communications group director Lindsey Fussell said the pandemic lockdown had “laid bare” people’s reliance on a reliable internet connection.
“So it’s important that affordable options are available so everyone can stay connected, particularly those who have fallen on hard times,” she said.
Some mobile, pay-TV and telecoms firms offer low-cost packages for people on benefits and other measures to support vulnerable customers, but Ofcom said companies could be doing more.
“I is clear providers can do more to support customers who are in financial difficulties,” said Fussell.
The regulator called for connectivity providers to offer affordable tariffs targeting customers on low incomes, and for companies that already have them, such as BT and Virgin Media, to better promote them.
The proportion of customers being disconnected for non-payment fell during the initial lockdown period in the spring, but then increased from June to September to higher levels than before the pandemic, Ofcom said.
“It is crucial that those who are struggling financially are not locked out,” he said.
Ofcom said it plans to conduct further research and publish a report on affordability and debt in 2021.
It added that if providers fail to address its concerns with regard to customers in financial difficulty it would consider “further action”.
“This could include working with the government to determine whether an industry-wide, regulated social tariff is necessary,” Ofcom said.