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2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills

4 June 2021
  • 700,000 people have fallen into the red on broadband bills during Covid.

  • 18 to 34-year-olds are three times as likely to be behind on their broadband bill than older groups. 

  • Those with children under 18 are three times as likely to be behind as those in households without children.

  • Broadband connection can give people a huge head start on those who don’t.

2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills, with 700,000 of these falling into the red during Covid, says Citizens Advice. 

The new research from the charity has also found some groups are particularly struggling. Young people and those with children under 18 are three times more likely to be behind on their broadband bills, than older groups or those without children. Households on Universal Credit are nine times as likely to be behind on their broadband bill compared to those not on the benefit. 

This comes at a time when people are more reliant on broadband to work and help their children with schoolwork, with UK adults spending an average of 22 hours online each week. 

The charity is warning that broadband is an essential utility, and that mobile data is not a substitute. This is particularly true when it comes to things like filling in job applications or where families are using multiple devices to work from home and do schoolwork. 

Ultimately, falling behind on bills can lead to broadband being disconnected. But the charity’s frontline advisers also see people who simply cannot afford broadband in the first place, or are cutting back elsewhere to keep their connection. 

In December, the regulator Ofcom “strongly urged” all providers to consider offering cheaper broadband tariffs for those on a low income or who are struggling financially. Only two nationwide and two local providers currently offer these tariffs - usually for people on Universal Credit.

Ofcom is expected to release a report this month into whether further action is needed. 

Citizens Advice is calling on Ofcom and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to urgently ensure all providers offer low-cost broadband to people on low incomes. 

James’s story - “I have to go to the local shops or library to apply for jobs”

In the past few months James*, who’s in his 50s and from Norwich, lost his job and had to claim Universal Credit. He said: “I’m looking for work but because I can’t afford broadband I have to go to the local shops or the library to use their free Wifi. It's very hard applying for jobs because they only give you a period of time to access the internet.

“I miss messages from my Universal Credit account. It's really stressful as I have to look for work as part of Universal Credit, but not having broadband makes this so much harder.”

Lisa’s story - “if I cut my broadband I wouldn't have been able to apply for jobs”

Lisa, 43, from Surrey, had always worked in the travel industry but was told to shield in March last year. In October, her team was cut from 50 to five members of staff. She was made redundant and had to apply for Universal Credit and New Style Jobseekers’ Allowance. 

She said: “There was always something that I wasn’t able to pay in full. I couldn’t always afford my food - I was really worried about how I was going to survive.

“There was nothing else I could cut back on, as if I cut my broadband I wouldn't be able to apply for jobs and to keep updated with my Universal Credit.

She now has a job working as a receptionist on a zero-hours contract but still struggles to afford broadband. 

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Broadband is not a luxury, it’s an essential, like gas and electricity. 

“Lack of broadband creates yet another hurdle in the hunt for jobs, helping children with their schoolwork, and being able to access help, information and fill in forms online. Those with a broadband connection can have a huge head start on those who don’t. 

“Ofcom and the government must ensure everyone can afford their broadband, no matter which provider they are with. People shouldn't be penalised simply because their provider isn't one of the few firms that offers a cheaper tariff.”

Notes to editors

  1. ICM Unlimited surveyed a representative sample of 6,001 adults living in the UK. The  sample has been weighted to the profile of all adults aged 18+ in the UK and is weighted by age, gender, region, social grade, work status, and ethnicity. Fieldwork took place between 25 March and 9 April 2021. 

    1. Are you currently behind on any of the following household bills? Broadband bill? 5% said yes

    2. In February 2020, were you behind on any of the following household bills? Broadband bill. 3% said yes

    3. 18% of people who are either receiving Universal Credit, or live with someone who is, are behind on their broadband bill. This is compared to 2% of people who aren’t receiving Universal Credit and don’t live with someone who is. 

    4. 12% of 18-34 year-olds are currently behind on their broadband bills, compared to 4% of 35-54 year-olds and less than 1% of 55+s

    5. 9% of households with children aged under 18 were behind on their broadband bills, vs 3% of households without under-18s. 

    6. 3% said they had been disconnected from a telecoms service during the pandemic due to not having paid a landline, mobile or broadband bill.

  2. Citizens Advice contacted 14 broadband providers, and four confirmed they offered a social tariff.

  3. James’ name has been changed to protect his identity. 

  4. Ofcom’s Adults’ Media Literacy Tracker is an regular, nationally representative survey about access, use and understanding of internet, television, mobile and other platforms among the 16+ adult population of the UK. The survey asks how many hours respondents ‘spend time doing things online in a typical week’

    1. The 2020 Tracker (fieldwork conducted 6 October 2020 - 23 Jan 2021) found that the mean time spent online each week was 22.2 hours

  5. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

  6. Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person,for free. 

  7. We helped 2.8 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2019-20. And we had 34.5 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.

  8. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,600 service outlets across England and Wales.

  9. Citizens Advice is the largest provider of free, multi-channel debt advice. Providing that help gives Citizens Advice unique insight into the types of debts people struggle with.

  10. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or 0808 223 1144 for Welsh language speakers.