More than one in six people are struggling to afford their broadband during the third lockdown, UK advisory charity Citizens Advice has found. This comes at a time when people are more reliant on broadband to work, teach their children and order essentials.
Citizens Advice found that during the first lockdown, certain groups, including 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.
It also found broadband customers in receipt of low-income benefits such as Universal Credit were almost twice as likely to struggle to pay their bill as other customers.
Towards the end of 2020, an estimated 2.3 million people had fallen behind on their broadband bill, according to the charity.
In December, regulator Ofcom found that if households were paying the average £37 a month for landline and broadband, this would take around four times the proportion of a low-income household’s budget, compared to an average household.
It “strongly urged” all providers to consider offering cheaper tariffs for those on a low income or who are struggling financially.
Citizens Advice is calling on the government and Ofcom to fast-track these plans by making it compulsory for all providers to offer affordable tariffs to people on low-income benefits. Only three of the largest 13 firms currently offer these tariffs.
One survey respondent had to claim Universal Credit in March when her work in the hospitality industry stopped. She said: “Throughout the lockdown the only way I’ve been able to see my elderly parents, and most of my grandkids is on video calls. I don’t have broadband as I can’t afford it, so when my data has gone, I can’t see them anymore. I’ve missed family games nights on Zoom.
“Do you know how heartbreaking it is to not be able to see them? It’s really isolating just being alone. There were times where if I ran out of data it would be weeks until I saw another person.”
She isn’t eligible for any free data boosts, such as those offered as part of the government’s ‘Get Help With Technology’ scheme to help those with children who can’t afford to get online.
Previously she would go to a friend’s house to use the internet. She added: “I’m literally being penalised for not having access to the Internet. Most things nowadays are online: food shopping when I was isolating, applications, checking my Universal Credit account, getting the best deal for gas and so forth. And so when you don’t have access to the internet you lose out as they put all the best deals and information online.”
“Broadband allows people to be part of society,” commented Ned Dukes, Community Advice Worker at Citizens Advice Haringey. “So much of the support is now online, as well as job applications and job interviews. Without access to the internet, people are effectively locked out of key services and everything they need to live a full and proper life.”
“But for people on welfare benefits, every single decision about how they spend £1 can make a difference. Broadband can be incredibly expensive.”
“The pandemic has cemented the fact that broadband is an essential utility,” stated Alistair Cromwell, Acting Chief Executive of Citizens Advice. “It is not a luxury for those who can afford it. Without broadband we struggle to teach our children, order food and medicines, work or search for a job.”
“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.”
According to Phil Sorksy, SVP, Service Providers for EMEA at CommScope, the findings are a stark reminder that the digital divide is still very much present across our nation. “We now all depend on speedy and reliable broadband as a key part of our everyday lives, and its significance continues to grow. Broadband connectivity plays a key role as an enabler of economic growth and prosperity across communities – such connectivity will be the difference between success and failure, particularly for smaller, home-based businesses, enabling them to reach a global audience. And with the lines between ‘home’ and ‘office’ increasingly blurred due to the rise of remote working – especially in the current lockdown – having access to affordable connectivity is crucial so that local economies and communities can truly thrive.”
“In many instances, enhanced broadband (up to 1 Gbps) can be delivered by either superfast fibre services or via ultra-high speed service over Cable TV Networks (DOCSIS 3.1), and in some instances the next generation of 5G wireless can provide a solution. However, regardless of the delivery mechanism, it is essential that all strata of society can access the most appropriate local service, including those that may need some financial assistance in doing so.”
“It is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to the opportunities brought about by broadband connectivity, and closing the digital divide will be a vital step in facilitating the delivery of a wide range of services and applications to improve business efficiency and productivity – as well as enhancing everyday lives across all areas in the UK.”