Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Boosting connection: telecoms providers need to do more during the cost of living crisis
23 November 2022
Every day there’s a fresh story in the news on the cost of living crisis, and many people are really worried about their finances right now. The costs we’re paying for our broadband and for our phones are continuing to rise and for many of us mid-contract rises might also be on the horizon. We know that people can find it very difficult to deal with debt and get in touch with creditors. But there are things that telecoms companies can be doing to help people who are struggling to pay their bills.
Ofcom, the telecoms sector regulator, recently published its updated guidance on supporting vulnerable customers. We’re really pleased to see some of the key changes we called for have been adopted. The updated guidance will help push companies to do more to support those who are struggling.
Telling people about available support
Lots of people across the UK will be wondering how they are going to pay for their phone or broadband bills. Some might already have missed a payment and will be scared about what happens next. But often people don’t get in touch with their telecoms provider because they are unaware of the support that the company can offer them.
“If I have a problem, it is very difficult to ring someone to sort it out… I can’t always understand what I am being asked or told. I avoid making contact, as I am afraid of not being able to deal with it.” Expert by experience
The updated guidance from Ofcom makes it clear that providers should be proactively and prominently emphasising the support that is available in relevant communications. This information should cover both what the firm can do, but also include signposting to free debt advice organisations.
We’re pleased to see Ofcom say that these communications should include those related to payment. This is something we called for as we think this can be a way to reach people who might be worried about missing future bills. Ofcom also says that companies should take someone’s circumstance and communication channel preference into account. This is really important for those of us with mental health problems who can often struggle with specific channels like the phone.
One of the options for people struggling to pay their telecom bills is a social tariff which allows them access to the internet but at a reduced cost. Several providers offer these to people who are on certain benefits. But unfortunately only a very small number of people who are eligible are on one – just 3% according to Ofcom research.
It’s good to see that Ofcom have strengthened the language in the guidance to say that firms should “offer a social tariff”, an upgrade from its original plan to tell providers to “consider offering” social tariffs. While we think this should encourage providers to do more, there’s no legal requirement for providers to offer a social tariff. And with such low uptake, clearly companies need to be doing more to make people aware of them and to make it easy to apply.
“I only found out about the £15 offer from [company] for broadband if you were on certain benefits… [company] never mentioned it when I was renewing.” Expert by experience
Over the next few months as the cost of living continues to bite, it’s likely we’ll see more and more people missing their bills. Many of us might also face mid-contract increases early next year. Ofcom have called on telecoms companies to think carefully about any increases. Given the impact increasing prices can have on people’s mental health, companies shouldn’t cause undue distress.
“Broadband and mobile were both fixed payment contracts with time left on those fixed payments but have both increased. I was told they were increasing and it felt like I had no option but to accept what they said.” Expert by experience
We want telecoms providers to be considering what it’s like to be struggling with your mental health and your finances. The updated guidance includes lots of positive steps that firms can take to do this. Companies need to be implementing these as soon as possible – and at Money and Mental Health we can help them do this through our Mental Health Accessible programme.