Supporting phone and broadband customers through the cost-of-living crisis

13 July 2023

This page provides an update on Ofcom’s work to make sure that telecoms customers facing higher costs of living can access the support they need.

What we've done this month

  • Holding industry to account: We have launched an investigation into Virgin Media O2 about the way it handles requests from customers to terminate their contracts, which we are concerned may make it more difficult for customers to switch to an alternative provider.
  • Making affordable services easily available: Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom, has written to providers (PDF, 221.7 KB) to renew our pressure on them to make social tariffs available and make customers aware of them. By the end of the year we will publish new research on awareness of social tariffs and report on take-up of the social tariffs that individual providers offer.
  • Understanding customers’ needs: We have published further preliminary findings of research into customers’ awareness and understanding of inflation-linked in-contract price rises. In December we will publish our review of in-contract price rises, alongside new research on customers’ experience of price rise contract terms, and consult on any changes to our rules that we believe are needed.

Go straight to:

  1. Competition is delivering more investment and lower prices
  2. We have removed barriers to getting the best deal
  3. Higher household bills mean more need access to affordable broadband
  4. Transparency from providers is critical when household finances are under pressure
  5. We are reviewing inflation-linked price rise terms
  6. We expect providers to do more to support vulnerable customers
  7. Next steps

Competition is delivering more investment and lower prices for people and businesses

Ofcom’s role is to ensure fair competition, to support affordable prices and high-quality services for phone and broadband customers while encouraging long-term investment in the networks that the country needs for future growth, productivity and innovation.

The UK requires significant investment in digital infrastructure, to ensure people, communities and businesses have the connections they need. We have created the conditions for providers to ramp up the rollout of full-fibre broadband, which was available to only 6% of UK homes just five years ago and is now available to half of UK homes (we expect our Connected Nations 2023 report, to be published in September, to confirm this). Gigabit-capable broadband is available to 73% of UK homes (PDF, 327.8 KB). 5G coverage was available to 82% of premises outdoors (PDF, 327.8 KB) in January 2023, an increase of around 20 percentage points from May 2022.

With a wide range of broadband providers competing to serve residential customers, prices have fallen in real terms in recent years, while on a like-for-like basis the quality of telecoms services has improved. Between 2020 and 2022, the average list price of a superfast broadband and landline bundle fell by 11% in real terms. The average list price of a mobile service, based on average use, was 33% lower in real terms in 2022 than in 2017 (PDF, 3.5 MB), while average data use increased by 266%.

Customers can and do switch provider, or sign up to a new deal with their existing provider – many doing so to take advantage of lower prices or to get a better deal. In 2022, a quarter (24%) of households had switched provider (PDF, 18.8 MB) for at least one of their communications services in the previous 12 months.

Gigabit-capable broadband is available to


of UK homes

Between 2020 and 2022, the average price of a superfast broadband and landline bundle fell by


in real terms

In 2022,


of households had switched provider for at least one of their communications services in the last 12 months

At the same time, it’s clear UK households are facing higher costs of living and financial disruption. In April 2023, 9% of households with broadband were finding it difficult to afford their broadband service and 7% of households with mobile were finding it difficult to afford mobile services. We know that even thriving markets may not deliver for everyone and we are not complacent about the challenges people face amid persistent economic uncertainty.

Investment in networks means millions more people across the UK are benefiting from faster, more reliable connections, which is essential to allow us to live our lives online. But relying on these services makes it even more important that customers have affordable options available, and can find and access the right deal for their needs.

We have intervened on behalf of customers to ensure that they are able to navigate the market with confidence, that they are treated fairly by providers and that vulnerable customers are protected. We will not hesitate to do more when it is needed.

Over the last four years we have removed barriers to getting the best deal, and we are doing more to make sure people can navigate the market with confidence

We have stepped up our work to help people find the best deal available for them. We know that some customers could still get a better deal by switching provider or signing up to a new deal with their existing provider. We have made it easier for customers to know when and how they could shop around for a better deal, and made it easier for them to switch.

Switching and re-contracting rates in the mobile market increased following the introduction of our 'text-to-switch’ rules in 2019. It is now easier to switch by sending a simple, free text message, giving people control over the amount of contact they have with their provider and without having to worry about being charged for a notice period beyond the switching date. Mobile customers who switch are collectively saving an estimated £10.6m (PDF, 1.5 MB) per year after we banned notice period charges beyond the switching date.

We expect our new ‘One Touch Switch’ rules to have a similar effect in the home broadband market. This new process will make it easier and quicker for all broadband and landline customers to switch to a new provider, including those moving to or from cable and full-fibre networks. People will only need to speak to their new provider to organise the switch – this could be completed in as little as a day, where technically possible. One Touch Switch was due to be in place in April this year, but industry was not ready to implement it in time. We have therefore launched an industry-wide enforcement programme to ensure One Touch Switch will be available to customers as quickly as possible.

We have introduced notifications for customers who are coming to the end of their contract to warn them when their contract is up and what the best deals available to them are. Since end-of-contract notices were introduced, they have contributed to increases in the rates of re-contracting (PDF, 1.8 MB) (re-contracting with the main six broadband providers rose by between three and 13 percentage points). Where we have concerns that providers have not given end-of-contract notifications to customers, we have followed up with enforcement action, such as our current investigation into Shell Energy’s compliance with these rules.

We have also introduced automatic compensation for customers so they can have more confidence that they will get value for money from their services when things go wrong. In 2022, over £60m was paid in automatic compensation (PDF, 2.1 MB), with around 1.3 million payments made for delayed repairs or installations and missed appointments.

Higher household bills across the board mean more people need access to affordable broadband

While broadband and mobile prices have continued to fall, the most financially vulnerable households may still struggle to afford these services. That is why we launched a campaign in 2020 to urge providers to offer broadband social tariffs. At that time, only three major providers offered these tariffs. Today, there are twenty-seven broadband social tariffs available and several mobile providers also offer them. Around 85% of broadband customers are with a provider that offers a social tariff and can easily switch to one, if eligible.

We continue to call on TalkTalk and O2 to follow the example of other providers by introducing a broadband and mobile social tariff, respectively. As an absolute minimum, we expect providers without a social tariff to waive any early termination charges for customers that are struggling to pay and wish to switch to a social tariff from a rival provider.

The proportion of eligible households that have taken up a social tariff has increased to 5% in February 2023, up from 1% in January 2022. Awareness of social tariffs (PDF, 2.1 MB) has increased to 47% among eligible customers, compared to 16% in January 2022. While this is progress, it is not enough in the current economic circumstances. This month, Ofcom wrote to the largest providers (PDF, 221.7 KB) to impress upon them that more needs to be done by the industry to promote social tariffs actively – and target eligible households likely to be most in need of support.

We monitor progress on social tariffs closely. Our annual pricing trends research report, which we will publish in December, will set out for the first time take-up of social tariffs by individual provider, shining a spotlight on those who are not promoting them strongly enough to eligible customers.

Transparency from providers and fair treatment of customers is critical when household finances are under pressure

We have clear rules in place to make sure that providers are transparent with customers about the terms and conditions in their contracts, including the prices they will pay. We proactively monitor compliance with these rules.

As a result of our monitoring to hold the industry to account, we have three investigations and enforcement programmes in place:

  1. We are investigating BT’s compliance with our rules on giving customers all the information they need before they sign up to a contract and we will announce the outcome by the end of the year.
  2. We are conducting an enforcement programme looking at whether a number of providers made price rise terms sufficiently clear to consumers at the time they entered into their contract – or, if not, whether providers gave customers the right to exit their contract without penalty before implementing price increases – between March 2021 and June 2022. We will complete this enforcement programme by October 2023.
  3. This month we opened an investigation into Virgin Media O2, looking at whether Virgin Media’s conditions and procedures for contract termination act as disincentives to switch. The investigation will also consider whether Virgin Media has effective procedures for complaints handling and facilitating appropriate access to alternative dispute resolution.

We are reviewing inflation-linked price rise terms: whether providers are complying with our existing rules, and whether we need to change our rules

Ofcom has made repeated calls to providers to exercise restraint in making in-contract price rises, given higher costs of living and the financial pressures facing customers. Where providers are applying price rises, we have urged them to ensure that these reflect real increases in their costs.

In February, we announced a review to examine whether inflation-linked mid-contract price rises give customers sufficient certainty and clarity about what they can expect to pay.

Further analysis of our initial consumer research (XLSX, 47.7 KB) has revealed more evidence that awareness and understanding of in-contract price rises is low, particularly among the financially vulnerable, while understanding of the measures of inflation that providers use to increase prices is also low.

What our research has found

  • In February, we published preliminary research that showed that nearly a third of in-contract customers (31% of broadband customers and 32% of pay-monthly mobile customers) don’t know whether their provider can increase their monthly payment during their minimum contract period.
  • Our preliminary research also shows that less than half of customers who are aware their provider can increase their monthly payment (41% of broadband customers and 44% of pay-monthly mobile customers) stated that they found out before they started their contract.
  • Six in ten (58% of broadband customers and 61% of pay-monthly mobile customers) don’t know that CPI and RPI measure the rate of inflation.
  • Awareness of CPI and RPI is lowest among females, under-55s and the most financially vulnerable.
  • Those with a disability are more likely to lack confidence in knowing where to look for information on inflation rates.

We are carrying out further consumer research to understand in more detail the extent to which consumers understand – and can determine with certainty – what they will pay under inflation-linked price rise terms, and what information they require to find the best deal available. We will publish our findings and research in December, and set out whether we consider it necessary to change our rules.

We have stepped up our expectations of how providers should treat vulnerable customers

We have set out clear expectations about how telecoms providers should deal with customers who may be in debt or struggling to pay. We recently updated our guide to treating vulnerable customers fairly (PDF, 609.4 KB), which sets out good practice measures that providers can adopt to better support these customers.

Financial disruption may push some customers into arrears. After increasing during the coronavirus pandemic, overall the proportions of both broadband and mobile customers in arrears have remained broadly stable since 2020. In June 2022, 1.8% of broadband customers and 2.4% of mobile customers were in arrears, compared to 1.6% and 2.2% respectively in January 2021. Total customer debt has remained fairly consistent over time and disconnections have returned to pre-pandemic levels, after providers held off disconnecting customers during the pandemic. In the first half of 2022, 0.8% of broadband customers and 1.3% of mobile customers were disconnected for not paying.

We recently published a joint letter with Ofgem, Ofwat and the Financial Conduct Authority setting shared expectations across our regulated sectors, which make clear how we want firms to deal with customers in financial difficulty.

Next steps

  • In August, we will publish the next update to our Communications Affordability Tracker, which monitors people’s experience of communications services.
  • By October, we will complete our enforcement programme looking at whether the largest providers have complied with our rules on how providers should make any in-contract price rises clear and transparent at the point of sale.
  • We will publish our annual pricing trends report in December, through which we monitor retail prices closely. The next report will include new research on awareness and take-up of social tariffs.
  • In December, we will publish the findings of our review of inflation-linked in-contract price rises, as well as the consumer research that will inform our analysis, and consult on any changes to our rules that we consider necessary.
  • By the end of the year, we will announce our decision on our investigation into BT’s compliance with rules on giving customers the information they need before they sign up to a contract.

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