Telecoms must learn the lessons of Covid-19 and ring the changes

23 July 2020

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive

When Spanish flu came to the UK in 1918, working or learning from home was never an option. Britain’s schools and smoke-filled factories largely carried on, while families who were dispersed had to stay in touch by post or telegram.

But today, as our health workers have worked to save lives from the coronavirus, our telecoms companies and their key workers have helped contain its impact on lives and livelihoods.

Video streaming and virtual meetings allowed people to stay connected during the lockdown, and were a lifeline helping many firms stay in business. Colleagues and classrooms have stayed together virtually, even as they were socially distant.

Broadband companies rose to the challenge of keeping people and businesses connected, as their networks coped with extra demand. Never have they been more important to our society and economy.

With that status comes a special duty to treat customers fairly – especially those who, at a time of immense challenges for many people, are finding it hard.

One in four people report feeling anxious when contacting an essential service provider. For the many people suffering financial, emotional or health problems, that anxiety can be heightened. Some rely on broadband to manage their money or look for work, to run a small business or stay informed. And for those with no broadband who are elderly and self-isolating – or simply isolated – the simple landline is a lifeline.

So Ofcom, along with the Government, is working to ensure phone, broadband and pay-TV providers treat customers fairly during the coronavirus. Major firms committed in March to offer support for hard-pressed customers, and that action was welcome.

Ofcom also has rules requiring communications providers to treat vulnerable customers with extra care. So today we are announcing detailed, practical steps they can take.

Anyone can find themselves in a challenging situation, sometimes overnight. As well as those who are behind on bills, our measures cover people who are suffering mental or physical health problems, including Covid-19, or who have recently lost a loved one.

Identifying people who need extra support can be difficult, so we are calling for companies to provide specialist training to frontline staff. We also know how frustrating it can be having to explain the same problem to different people. So firms should keep information about customers’ needs and allow contact staff to access it confidentially.

Companies should offer a wide range of ways to get in touch – not just web forms, but also phone, post and specialist channels for people with disabilities.

We are also calling for clear, up-to-date policies for customers in difficult situations – based on advice from experts, charities and consumer groups – with senior executives accountable for embedding practices in their company’s culture.

All this can make a real difference for people who are struggling most, and who rely heavily on their phone, broadband or television. It may be about low-income families being offered a payment holiday, or distressed crime victims not having to pay for a mobile contract while their phone is held by police.

Looking further ahead, the coronavirus has also highlighted the need for investment to keep our telecoms networks fit for the future. These wires, pipes and poles underpin both our economy and our daily lives. They must evolve with them.

We support the Government’s plans for gigabit-speed broadband, as more people work, watch, learn and play online. Ofcom is planning to supercharge investment in ultrafast, reliable ‘full-fibre’ connections, including in rural areas.

Full fibre reaches 12% of homes today and is growing fast, but we want much wider coverage. So we are developing pricing rules that provide a fair return for investors in future, while ensuring people can afford good broadband in the meantime.

Those are our priorities as the telecoms sector builds on the lessons of this pandemic: fairness for customers today, especially those who are struggling; and investment in the networks of tomorrow.

We cannot know whether, or when, the UK will witness another pandemic as tragic as Spanish Flu, or Covid-19 today. Nor can we foresee what future telecoms technologies might help to manage its impact. But we can ensure extra support now for those who need it most, while planning for the networks that will keep our future generations connected.

This op-ed by Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive, first appeared in The Telegraph on 23 July 2020