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Internet reliance sees Brits cut back on food and clothes to afford bills

Paloma Kubiak
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Paloma Kubiak

The ever-growing reliance on phones and broadband, heightened by the pandemic, has led many to cut back on other essentials so they can afford their telecoms bills.

Internet access at home is now considered essential, but one in five – 4.7 million UK households –struggled to afford their telecoms bills this year.

Research from telecoms watchdog, Ofcom, found that 6% face difficulties paying for their fixed home broadband, while 5% struggled with their mobile bill.

The most common action taken by those struggling to pay their bills was to cut back on a package to make it more affordable (11%).

Other measures include cutting back on food and clothes spend (5%), cancelling a service (4%), missing a payment (2%) or changing payment method (2%).

However, Ofcom said that the proportion of customers in arrears was “relatively stable” between January and September at 2% for broadband and 3% for mobile.

But while the proportion of customers disconnected for non-payment fell during the initial lockdown period, there was an increase between June and September to higher levels seen than before the pandemic.

Ofcom said that telecoms companies “stepped-up” to help customers during the coronavirus pandemic with commitments to protect vulnerable users, but added that they can do more to help those facing financial hardship.

Further, given the reliance on phone and broadband services, continued investment in upgrading the UK’s networks is vital. But, it noted that generally, broadband and mobile customers are getting better services now for less money.

Average internet speeds and data usage have risen significantly while average household spend on telecoms has been going down in recent years.

But given the challenging economic outlook, Ofcom will carry out further research in this area and publish another report on affordability and debt next year.

Online services last thing to be cut

Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at, said: “Services to keep us online have been all the more important for millions during the long months of lockdown, and even when times are tough they are one of the last things that people cut.

“So-called universal service providers, namely BT and KCOM have offered social broadband tariffs for years for those most in financial need, but more can be done to make struggling consumers aware of the support already available.

“But this is only half the story. There are millions of customers who are already out of contract and may be overpaying as a result. Uswitch data shows that they may be paying an average of £90 a year more than customers who are in contract with the same provider.

“If you think this could apply to you, the immediate answer is to do a comparison online to see what deals are available from other providers, and consider switching. At the very least, armed with this information, you should engage with your current provider on getting a better price.”