Food or data? A few thoughts on digital inequality in the UK

I wish this research by the telecoms regulator Ofcom had received more widespread attention. They found that 4.7 million UK homes have struggled to afford their telecoms bills this year, with over a million households cutting back on spending on things like food and clothes in order to pay these bills. They stress that some broadband providers offer targeted tariffs for lower incomes but take up of these has been low, presumably because navigating the byzantine procedures of broadband providers is difficult to prioritise when you’re being squeezed by a cost of living crisis. Not for the first time I found recently that I got 40% off my broadband bill simply by phoning up and arguing, illustrating what is effectively a stealth tax on those who lack the time, energy and cultural capital to do this on a periodic basic. In this sense it points to the deeply predatory character of the post-privatisation services landscape, where complex contractual structures operate to constrain the consumer agency on which this shift in infrastructural provision was superficially predicated.

What I found particularly galling was the language Ofcom use in which they ‘call’ for action by providers. They note that disconnections for non-payment increased between June and September beyond pre-pandemic levels. The fact a ban on such disconnections was never even floated reflects the same pervasive failure to take digital access seriously in self-regarding policy circles that also found expression in the widespread ridicule that John McDonnell’s broadband policies attracted at the last election. It’s hard not to suspect that people who have never seriously worried about their digital access or experienced a real withdrawal of it (beyond fleeting technical problems) struggle to take seriously the fact that sustaining this access is hardship for increasing numbers. It might be true, as Ofcom claim, that average monthly spend of broadband has decreased across the country. But averages can hide a lot of deprivation, not least of all when cost of living is increasing and incomes are stagnating or being lost altogether. This is the disconnection rate cited in the report:

The proportion of total customers disconnected for non-payment between January and September for fixed and mobile services. Disconnections fell between January and May, while there was an increase in the period from June to September.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the significance of this disconnection is much greater in 2020/21 than it was in the pre-pandemic period. The letter Ofcom have sent to providers gives a window into the experiences condensed into this chart. These are some of the practices they call for, in a tone that suggests few if any providers are adopting them as a matter of course:
  • Using a range of communication channels when contacting a customer about their debt before taking any follow-up action, including enforcement or debt recovery.
  • Allowing a customer some time to get help, support and advice on how to manage the debts without the threat of enforcement action or disconnection during the same period.
  • Considering offering payment holidays or deferrals; freezing additional fees and charge where a customer is experiencing problem debt, particularly while the customer is seeking debt help and advice.
  • Offering tariff advice, whether that is switching to a cheaper tariff or social tariff.
  • Discuss and agree a realistic and reasonable payment plan which is flexible and repayable over a period of time. The plan should be based on the customer’s ability to pay and providers should help the customer understand any additional costs involved.
  • Preventing customers from being disconnected as this is a serious step that should only be used as a last resort.
  • That providers should be proactive at engaging as a matter of priority with consumers that are struggling to pay their bills.
  • Where a customer is actively engaging with and seeking support, providers should not impose any service restrictions and should waive any late payment penalty charges or early termination charge, limit debt collection activity and remove the threat of disconnection.
  • Providers should only commence debt collection activities after a sufficient period of time to allow consumers to get help and only disconnect consumers as a last resort and after a sufficient period of time. We suggested a sufficient period of time could, for example, be after a period of 3 months.

It’s easy to see how disconnection from household broadband could create or contribute to a debt spiral. Average monthly home broadband data use increased from 30GB in 2013 to 429GB in 2020, reports Ofcom. It seems likely that at least some of that use inevitably moves towards mobile contracts if fixed broadband is disconnected, with a much higher cost for data than would otherwise be the case. It’s worth stressing the above figure involves a significant increase over 2019, as reported by PCMag:

According to OpenVault’s Broadband Insights Report for the first quarter of 2020, average broadband consumption has increased to 402.5GB, from 273.5GB during the same time last year—that’s a 47 percent increase. It’s also a 17 percent rise over the fourth quarter of 2019, which saw 344GB in broadband usage. (See the full infographic below.)

Leading the way are the people who OpenVault refers to as power users: those who consume over 1TB of data. This group went from just 4.2 percent of total subscribers at the start of 2019 to 10 percent in the first quarter of 2020. This 138 percent increase in power users has greatly contributed to the acceleration of anticipated broadband consumption trends by nearly full year.

This growth of ‘power users’ suggests a divide opening up between those for whom access is an unconstrained resource akin to running water (and are disposed towards the inflation of their usage) and those for whom it involves opportunity costs such that sustaining a level of access entails cutting back on other areas of spending. Given that internet use in the UK doubled during 2020 as a whole range of online activities became ubiquitous to an unprecedented degree, the significance of this divide is only going to grow with time.

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