Mobile and internet services now ‘essential’ to consumers

23 July 2014

UK consumers believe that they can’t do without the internet and mobile phones, new Ofcom research reveals.

The study examined which communications services UK consumers consider ‘essential’ in their day to day lives and whether they are affordable, particularly for the most vulnerable in society.

This forms part of Ofcom’s on-going work to ensure consumers receive value for money from their communications services. Encouraging and promoting consumer participation in the communications markets is also a key priority for Ofcom.

Essential services for consumers

There was broad consensus among consumers on what ‘essential’ means in relation to communications services.

People said the ability to contact the emergency services, keep in touch with family and friends, or access information, education and entertainment were among the key functions of essential services.
Overall, the study found that telephone services, in particular mobiles, and internet access were most essential to UK consumers. Some 61% of consumers rated voice services (mobile or landline) as essential, 59% considered mobile voice or text services as essential, while 57% regarded personal internet access as essential.

The research also revealed that certain services are considered essential by some, but less important by others, with age being a key factor. Landline telephone services are considered essential by people aged 75 and above (61%), compared to just 12% of 16-24 year olds. However, accessing the internet via a smartphone was considered essential to 53% of 16-24 year olds, but to no one aged 75 and above.

Affordability of essential services

Ofcom also examined the affordability of essential communications services. Among those consumers who said they were responsible for paying for them, 86% said they never had difficulties meeting the costs.

This is consistent with previous Ofcom research showing that consumers had benefitted from falling prices and an increase in choice and quality over the last 10 years.

Managing communications costs

Of the minority (14%) that have had difficulties paying for communications services, three quarters (74%) have been careful about spending while managing their communications costs; just under half (45%) have cut back on luxuries; while around a third (36%) opt for cheaper goods or services.

The research found there to be low awareness of affordable deals among low income users; and just 26% of consumers on income support knew about social landline tariffs offered by BT and KCOM.

Of those responsible for paying for communications services, a small minority (2%) said they have been in debt or fallen behind on payments while trying to manage their telecoms costs.

Take-up of essential services

The high take-up of essential communication services shows that, in most cases, cost is not a barrier to use. Some 95% of households have at least one mobile phone, 84% have a landline and 82% an internet connection.

But for some consumers, particularly those in low income households, cost is a reason for not having a desired service. This applies particularly to broadband, with 7% of consumers saying they would like to have broadband but don’t because of the cost.

Next steps

Ofcom has a programme of work to help consumers who face debt or are excluded from using communications services because of cost. This includes:

  • improving links between debt charities and communication providers to encourage them to be more responsive to the changing circumstances of consumers;
  • improving awareness of the most affordable deals. Ofcom has already published a consumer guide on ‘Managing the costs of communications’;
  • reporting annually on the prevalence of debt and cost as barriers to participation;
  • improving switching processes and an examination of whether there are any particular barriers to switching for low income consumers.
  • Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said: “While it’s encouraging that the majority of people don’t experience difficulties paying for their communications services, it’s important that help is available for those who do.
  • “We’re working to ensure that all consumers can benefit from the communications services which are most important for modern life.”



  • Ofcom commissioned both qualitative research and quantitative research to establish if there are situations where affordability is a barrier to using communication services which citizens and consumers regard as important or ‘essential’ for participation in society. provide in-depth and robust research in this area. Explorative qualitative research was carried out with UK adults generally and low-income consumers in particular between October and December 2013. Qualitative research involved both focus-group discussions and individual interviews.  The quantitative research involved 1,997 face-to-face computer assisted interviews with UK adults between March and April 2014.
  • BT and KCOM offer lower priced tariffs for fixed line voice services, including line rental and some call allowances, to consumers in receipt of certain means-tested benefits.
  • Fifty-seven per cent of consumers regarded personal internet access as essential. Among the different way of accessing the internet, fixed internet was rated as essential by the highest proportion of consumers (40%).
  • Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications, wireless communications and postal services.
  • For further information about Ofcom please visit: Ofcom’s news releases can be found at:

Lizzi Regan
Ofcom Communications
(+44) (0)300 123 1795