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More than one in six households struggling to afford broadband in UK

With UK lockdown persisting and education online until March at the earliest, research finds broadband customers in receipt of low-income benefits almost twice as likely to struggle to pay their bill than other customers

At a time when people are reliant on broadband to work, learn and order essentials in the third UK lockdown, research from UK information and guidance service Citizens Advice has made the alarming discovery that large swathes of the UK population are struggling to pay their broadband bill.

Moreover, the study found that while more than one in six people were struggling to afford their broadband during the third lockdown, in the first lockdown that began in March 2020, particular financial pressure was felt by a number of certain groups, including people with children, disabled people, people from Black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds, those who were shielding and young people.

The Citizens Advice study was carried out by Opinium, which surveyed 2,008 adults online, between 15 and 19 January 2021. Of the respondents, 82% (1,646) had broadband. Data was weighted to be nationally representative of the UK adult population. 

In a 2020 study, Opinium surveyed 3,454 adults online, between 14 and 27 August 2020. Questions on affordability and usage were shown to 92% of respondents (3,190) with the internet at home. Data was also weighted to be nationally representative of the UK adult population.

Broadband customers in receipt of low-income benefits such as Universal Credit were almost twice as likely to struggle to pay their bill as other customers. In the 2020 survey, 28% of those on means-tested benefits said they struggled to afford their broadband bill generally, compared with 16% of the adult population. Towards the end of last year, an estimated 2.3 million people had fallen behind on their broadband bill payments.

The research findings come as mobile and broadband communications providers are reacting to make sure that during the current lockdown children from all backgrounds, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, do not lose out due to education being online, a situation that the UK government says will persist until 8 March at the earliest. The past few weeks have seen the UK’s mobile providers cut data package pricing for those who are disadvantaged and introduce free and cheap broadband offers, some dedicated for education.

Yet research in November 2020 found that inadequate home internet speeds had contributed to a digital divide during the first UK lockdown, with network benchmarking firm Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) finding connectivity speeds considered inadequate in 30% of properties.

In December, research from Ofcom revealed alarming discrepancies between the availability and affordability of broadband in the UK. The comms regulator estimated that more than 880,000 children live in households with only a mobile internet connection and 43,000 premises could not access either a decent fixed broadband service or good 4G coverage indoors. It also cited a report from the Sutton Trust that showed just 10% of teachers reported that all of their pupils had access to the internet for learning.

More worryingly, Ofcom found that if households were paying the average £37 a month for landline and broadband, this would take around four times the proportion of a low-income household’s budget, compared with an average household. It added that the pandemic had cemented the fact that broadband is an essential utility, not a luxury for those who can afford it, and called on the UK government and Ofcom to fast-track these plans by making it compulsory for all providers to offer affordable tariffs to people on low-income benefits.

“Without broadband, we struggle to teach our children, order food and medicines, work or search for a job,” said Alistair Cromwell, acting chief executive of Citizens Advice. “While the government has provided free laptops and mobile data to help children study at home, these are ultimately just a sticking plaster. To tackle the digital divide, it must take urgent action to ensure everyone can afford their broadband, no matter which provider they are with.”

The organisation strongly urged all providers to consider offering cheaper tariffs for those on a low income or who are struggling financially, noting that only three of the largest 13 firms currently offer these tariffs.

Reacting to the findings, Phil Sorksy, SVP, Service Providers for EMEA at comms technology supplier CommScope said that the news that one in six households is struggling to afford broadband is a stark reminder that the digital divide is still very much present across our nation.

“We now all depend on speedy and reliable broadband as a key part of our everyday lives, and its significance continues to grow,” he said. “Broadband connectivity plays a key role as an enabler of economic growth and prosperity across communities - such connectivity will be the difference between success and failure, particularly for smaller, home-based businesses, enabling them to reach a global audience. And with the lines between “home” and “office” increasingly blurred due to the rise of remote working – especially in the current lockdown – having access to affordable connectivity is crucial so that local economies and communities can truly thrive.”

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