As the cost of living rises it is “vital” that broadband firms do more to promote discounted broadband for low-income households, the government says.
In a letter to broadband suppliers, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries noted only 1-2% of Universal Credit claimants take up social tariffs.
Ofcom has previously said that 84% of benefit recipients were unaware of social tariff packages.
It said it had seen “limited evidence” of those tariffs being promoted.
The Good Things Foundation, which campaigns on behalf of the digitally excluded, described data poverty as an issue that has “grown significantly over the past two years during the pandemic”.
It warned increases to the cost of living “will only put further pressure on those on the lowest incomes, who are already having to make stark choices between having the internet connection they need and heating their house or feeding their family”.
In her letter to broadband firms, Nadine Dorries highlighted the increasing prevalence of “a more digital society” and said it was “vital” to raise awareness of discount broadband offers “for low-income households”.
Of the 5,000,000 households eligible for cheaper broadband, only around 55,000 households are currently taking advantage of the offers available, the culture secretary noted, in her letter.
Ms Dorries invited the telecoms companies to respond “on how we go further”.
‘Tougher and tougher’
Mike – who asked the BBC not to use his last name – has been off work due to medical issues and claims Universal Credit.
Speaking on the phone to the BBC, he says he’s on the sofa wrapped in a duvet as he can’t afford to turn the heating on.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher. Obviously, with the electric going up, food prices going up – I’m starting to struggle.”
He doesn’t have a TV, and uses foodbanks; a local charity provides food vouchers and a hot meal – and recently it has given him a tablet so he can access the internet.
The internet is an essential – Mike uses it to communicate with the job centre, among many other things.
At present, he’s using the limited data that comes with his phone and the tablet – paying for broadband isn’t a possibility: “Taking extra bills on at the moment, is not something I’d want to do,” he tells the BBC.
He says he has heard a little about social tariffs, but only ‘through the grapevine’: “It’s not really put out there for you to find it easy, you’ve got to go and try and find that information”.
Many of those struggling to pay their bills turn to Citizen’s Advice for help.
Matthew Upton, the charity’s director of policy, told the BBC: “We’re hearing shocking stories of people on the lowest incomes struggling to get by and yet they’re missing out on affordable broadband deals.”
“It’s good to see the government applying more pressure on firms to do more to help people move onto social tariffs, but if it still doesn’t work they must consider other options.”
Other organisations welcome efforts to raise awareness of social tariffs, but say it won’t fix the underlying problem of rising costs and insufficient income.
Previously Ofcom found that, even on a social tariff, broadband takes up nearly 5% of the disposable income of an unemployed person claiming Universal Credit.
Rebecca McDonald, Senior Economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told the BBC promoting social tariffs “is no substitute for meaningful action to protect peoples’ incomes, as we face the biggest squeeze on living standards in generations”.
“At a bare minimum, the government must increase benefits in line with inflation as soon as possible, to protect those most at risk of hardship.”
Companies urge further support
Some of the biggest telecoms companies have also called on the government to do more.
A spokesperson for Virgin Media O2 said it was speaking to the government about “ways to make sign-up easier and quicker”.
The firm said it hoped to move from a manual to an automated process to help identify individuals or families receiving Universal Credit.
BT told the BBC it offered an “at-cost” social tariff and, as living costs rise, it was “now urgent that the rest of the industry plays their part to introduce this sort of social tariff, and that government looks at what more they can do to offer further support for those who continue to struggle”.
“If the industry does not play their part, government should empower Ofcom to require this.”