Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health

Calling time on bad telecoms services

5 December 2019

It’s that time of year again when you start to feel a bit bombarded with marketing adverts and offers, from Black Friday sales to pre-Christmas deals. And one thing that’s struck me in recent weeks has been the volume of ads I’ve seen encouraging me to buy a new phone, switch mobile provider or take out a new broadband package.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given how dependent most of us are on these services for day-to-day life. But the variety of telecoms deals on offer also brings into sharp focus the very bad deal that people with mental health problems are too often getting from this industry. As our latest policy note shows, people with mental health problems face significant barriers in choosing, using and paying for phone and internet services – and this too often leads to harm.

Choosing services

Our research shows that common symptoms of mental health problems like low motivation, and reduced concentration can make it harder for people to engage with consumer markets, including when it comes to choosing phone or internet services. For example, only 19% of Research Community survey respondents said they find it easy to get a good deal for their landline and broadband services. Six in ten said they think they’re overpaying for telecoms service, but many don’t feel confident that they can find a better deal, due to the complexity of the market. 

This is a particular problem when it comes to understanding the huge range of providers and tariffs available in the telecoms market, and many people say they don’t trust price comparison websites to guide them. These factors can leave people trapped in poor value deals, paying a ‘loyalty penalty’, and facing significant barriers to switching services. 

We’re calling on Ofcom, the regulator of the industry, to make it easier for people to change telecoms providers, by requiring firms to alert people when their contract is coming to an end, and to give customers a greater variety of options to get in touch with their providers. We’d also like to see telecoms firms and price comparison websites make their information about pricing more accessible, by doing user-testing with people with mental health problems.

Improving support for people to manage their telecoms accounts

Our Research Community members identified a range of difficulties in managing their telecoms services, especially when unwell. Two thirds (67%) of our respondents find it difficult to manage their mobile telephone account(s) when unwell, and this rises to 77% for landline and home internet services. These difficulties can be exacerbated by the design of telecoms services, including the websites of providers and the messages they send, which often use inaccessible jargon and present an overwhelming amount of information – making it very hard for people to process. Another problem people face is controlling their usage of telecoms services, with 69% of respondents saying they had to pay extra for exceeding their calls, text or internet usage limits. 

To address these issues, firms should offer people a range of communication options through which to get in touch. They should also develop more ways for customers to get support from third parties such as friends and family, which many people say would be a big help. And we’d like to see firms proactively offer consumers a range of spending caps and alerts, to help customers control their telecoms usage.

Don’t cut me off

A final issue raised in our policy note is the difficulties people face in paying for telecoms service – and the harm that can result from missing payments, due to aggressive debt collection practices or being cut off. Just three in ten (28%) of our respondents feel that they can comfortably afford their telecoms bills and four in ten (39%) have missed a bill payment. Part of the problems is that people say they often struggle to understand bills or keep track of their usage. 

And when people fall behind on payments, many say they have been treated badly by firms, with serious consequences. Our previous research has shown how aggressive debt collection practices can be a trigger for people becoming suicidal, and it’s clear that many telecoms firms are falling far short of established good practice. Just one in five (21%) respondents felt that their provider let them repay what they owed at a reasonable rate, and only 14% were told about support organisations, such as debt advice charities. 

Another big problem is people being disconnected from their internet or phone when they’ve missed a payment — which can affect their ability to work, to access public services (including mental health services), and to stay connected with friends and family.

Ofcom should review telecoms providers’ debt collection practices as a matter of urgency, and take action to make improvements on this across the industry. It should also ensure that customers are only ever disconnected as a very last resort, and that vulnerable consumers are not disconnected in any situation, to ensure they have at least basic access to essential services.

Taking measures to address the problems outlined in our research could make a huge difference in ensuring people with mental health problems don’t continue to get a raw deal on the telecoms services that we all rely on.