While the growth and development of the internet has had a generally positive effect on consumers and citizens in improving their ability to access a range of innovative services, vulnerable and excluded groups still face significant challenges that limit their ability to fully participate in the UK’s burgeoning digital society, according to a new Ofcom report.
In its latest Access and inclusion report, which has just been published, the telecoms market regulator found that factors such as income, disability and age often meant people had difficulty in choosing from the vast number of devices and service options available, suffered financial detriment from being mis-sold inappropriate products or being unable to find the best deals, and were unable to afford essential services or had to make tough decisions over what devices and services they could use.
Ofcom’s report, which updates a previous version first published in 2016, contained a number of key findings.
Contrary to the narrative often presented, the most financially insecure people were found to be substantially less likely to own a landline, mobile, or fixed broadband connection, or a pay-TV service, although they were more likely to live in a mobile-only household – 28% versus 21% of the population as a whole.
A total of 1% of households in this group had neither a landline nor a mobile, 30% had no internet access, and 8% had access only through a mobile. Those who did have broadband were significantly less likely than average to have a superfast connection (28% compared to 40%).
About 10% of adults in the UK reported they had had difficulty paying for communications services at some point, higher among young people (17% of 16 to 24-year-olds), rising to 34% of people with a long-term mental illness. Across the population as a whole, mobile phones and pay TV were found to be the services that most people had difficulty paying for.
Ofcom found that disabled people were generally less likely than usual to personally use most types of communications services or devices, with the largest disparities registered in smartphone ownership – 53% compared to 81% in the general population – and in internet use (67% versus 92%).
However, it was also clear that there were differences by disability type. People with learning disabilities tended to use comms services in much the same way as the general population, and were far more likely to have smartphone and internet access. But those with some form of visual impairment were most likely to say their use of comms services was limited.
Among the elderly, Ofcom found that the number of people aged over 75 living in mobile-only households – that is to say, without access to a traditional landline – was up to 6% as smartphone take-up increased among the older age group. However, the over-75s still tended to prefer to use larger PC devices to access the internet. Just under half of the over-75s had no home broadband service.
“Internet access is now so important that it can reasonably be considered an essential utility, so it is deeply concerning that more half of people aged 75-plus do not have broadband access,” said Broadband Genie spokesperson Alex Tofts.
“Older people are notably vulnerable to isolation, but the internet can go a long way to help bridge this gap and help them stay in touch with family and friends, as well as providing them with the ability to manage finances and shop without having to leave the home.”
Tofts added: “There is also a clear difference between people aged 65-plus and 75-plus compared to the rest of the population when it comes to understanding the language and terminology used by providers.
“More needs to be done so that this age group can feel confident when researching broadband and other communication services.”
Ofcom’s rulebook requires it to make communications services work for everyone in the UK regardless of circumstances, and over the years it has taken repeated actions to further support vulnerable customers, such as the introduction of a monthly price cap on BT’s landline-only customers, enacted in the autumn of 2017.
For the coming 12 months, it said it will begin to monitor the impact of its general condition on vulnerability to identify examples of best practice that it can use elsewhere.
It will also work more closely with the UK Regulator’s Network (UKRN) on a programme of work to deliver minimum standards to support people with long-term mental illnesses, cognitive impairment and dementia.
Other plans for 2019 include: new rules to make regulated on-demand content more accessible; new protections for consumers from harmful pricing practices, notably in the fixed broadband market that take account of the needs of vulnerable groups; strengthening the Communication Consumer Panel, the independent consumer body for the telecoms sector, to enable it to advocate for consumers better; taking account of the needs of vulnerable groups with regard to the planned switch-off of the public switched telephone network (PTSN) in favour of voice-over-IP (VoIP); harsher measures for those who make nuisance and spam calls; and fostering the development of the broadband universal service obligation (USO).