Receive free Telecoms updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Telecoms news every morning.
The UK’s media regulator has accused telecoms groups of failing to make cheaper options aimed at helping the most vulnerable customers visible enough amid the cost of living crisis.
An increasing number of telecom operators now offer so-called ‘social tariffs’ — cheaper broadband and phone packages for people claiming universal credit, pension credit and other benefits.
However Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom, said that she wanted to see “a lot more people taking them up,” as the regulator announced plans to publish take-up of social tariffs by each provider in its annual pricing trends report, due later this year, for the first time.
“We don’t think it’s acceptable for these deals to be buried away on the website in a place where people can’t find them easily, and we think that they should be included in call centre scripts,” Dawes told the Financial Times on Thursday. “We want companies to be doing more to help particularly those on the lowest incomes to find the deals that they’re not aware of but which could really help them.”
The criticism from Ofcom comes as the government said it was working with regulators across various sectors to try to help households as they battle inflation.
Last month, chancellor Jeremy Hunt discussed ways to support households struggling to pay broadband and mobile prices, as a part of an “action plan” to tackle high prices which also involved the Competition and Markets Authority, the Financial Conduct Authority, as well as the telecoms, energy and water regulators.
Dawes last week sent a letter to seven chief executives in the industry calling on them to make social tariffs available and make customers aware. She said customers could save up to £200 a year by taking a better offer.
“We believe that there is a very strong competitive market at the retail level for mobile and broadband in the UK. But we are concerned to make sure that customers are being given the right information to navigate that, particularly when budgets are so tight for so many families,” Dawes said.
Ofcom said that 25 providers offer broadband social tariffs today — an increase from three in 2020 when the body launched a campaign. However only 5 per cent of eligible households had taken up a social tariff as of February, it added.
The biggest operators argue that they have already increased measures to support consumers hit hardest by the cost of living crisis.
While BT said it “welcomes” Ofcom’s continued focus on social tariffs, it said in its view that around 80 per cent of those using one were already on one of its cheapest deals. “The current private sector-funded model is unsustainable,” it added, asking for help from the government.
Virgin Media said eligible customers can apply for its social tariffs in “just two clicks — a matter of seconds — on our website.”
The regulator on Thursday also launched an investigation into Virgin Media after complaints from consumers that the operator is making it difficult for them to cancel their services.
Virgin Media said it is “committed to providing our customers with excellent service, supporting them with any issues and giving clear options should they wish to leave.” It added that complaint rates relating to difficulties leaving have halved over the past year. “We will keep working with Ofcom throughout its investigation, while making further improvements in how we handle customer complaints to provide a better overall experience.”
Ofcom is also investigating whether telecom operators are giving enough information to their customers on annual price rises that affect customers in the middle of their phone contract.