Telecoms firms must help vulnerable customers, regulator Ofcom says

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Telecoms and broadband providers must do more to help their vulnerable customers, regulator Ofcom says.

Its research shows about 1.1 million UK households struggle to afford phone and broadband bills, rising to about one in 10 in lowest-income homes.

Ofcom wants to update its guidance to firms to include not restricting services to those who need them most.

Its network and communications group director, Lindsey Fussell, said: “Phone and broadband are vital to our lives.”

Several broadband and phone companies have recently announced price increases significantly above the rate of inflation.

While many broadband providers offer discounted “social tariffs” for people on benefits, Ofcom has previously said that it has seen “limited evidence” that they are actively promoted to eligible customers.

Deals do not generally feature in broadband advertising or price comparison website searches, it said.

It also found that only 55,000 out of 4.2 million homes in receipt of universal credit are using discounted rates, and 84% of people receiving benefits were unaware of the social tariff packages.

Now Ofcom has announced it is consulting on proposals for better help for those struggling to pay that will be included in updated guidance for companies.

“Many households’ budgets are being seriously squeezed. So it’s crucial that people who are struggling to afford their bills get the support they need,” Ms Fussell added.

Millions could save

One of Ofcom’s key proposals is that firms emphasise the support available to customers, particularly special discounted packages for financially vulnerable customers.

Recent research suggests that “millions of families could save an average of Β£144 each year on their broadband bill”.

It also said that firms should make greater efforts to reach customers in debt to offer support, using a variety of means “such as letter, email, phone and text, and rotate between them”.

Ernest Doku, of price comparison site Uswitch.com, said “Broadband providers must do more to help people in need. For those struggling to find work, internet access is vital and being threatened with disconnection can cause huge stress.

“Social tariffs aren’t the only way broadband customers can save money. Seven million households in Britain are overpaying by Β£162 a year because they don’t realise they are out of contract on their deal, despite the looming price rises,” he added.

But Till Sommer, head of policy at the Internet Service Providers Association, told the BBC, “The broadband market is highly competitive, and while some providers increase their prices from time to time, many others are keeping them stable.

“Despite ever increasing levels of data usage, the market as a whole still offers low and very competitive prices, and consumers who are struggling to pay their bills have access to a range of social tariffs from a variety of providers.”

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