All telcos have a role to play in bridging the digital divide

By Alex Towers, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, BT

Today, The Fabian Society published a new report about digital inequality: Bridging the Divide.

BT was pleased to support the research in the report, which includes a thorough analysis of which groups of people are not online, or barely use the internet, and the reasons for this. 

This report comes at an important time. The pandemic has shown us the value of technology.  Good broadband can be a route to improve lives and widen opportunities, but not if the costs are prohibitive for millions of people.  BT’s Home Essentials is a necessity for many, offering at-cost broadband to everyone on universal credit.  As an economic squeeze takes hold, it is now urgent that the rest of the industry plays their role and brings in this sort of social tariff, and that Government looks at what more they can do to offer further support for those at the sharp end.

The Fabian Society’s first recommendation is ‘a mandatory social tariff, available from all internet providers’.

BT strongly supports this, and has provided a form of social tariff for telephone and broadband services for many years. However, we are disappointed that other major communications providers have not responded to the Government’s calls to introduce a social tariff for broadband so far. 

BT takes its responsibilities here seriously, launching our new at-cost broadband social tariff, BT Home Essentials last year, having run BT Basic for many years before that. We have over 800,000 of our vulnerable customers on a range of subsidised or discounted tariffs.

However, other major operators do not, with Sky and Vodafone in particular refusing to launch social tariffs: on the basis that if BT offers one, they don’t need to. This cannot be right; and it is not tenable.

Today’s report also points out that Government has the power under the 2003 Comms Act to direct Ofcom to review the affordability and then impose regulatory social tariffs on all providers, and it is our view that the Government should now do so swiftly.

The think tank also proposes that social tariffs should be funded ‘through a broadband discount scheme, co-funded by government and the telecommunications industry’.  Again, BT supports this idea. 

As the economic outlook worsens, the numbers that could benefit from social tariffs are already in excess of 5 million and are set to increase further.  This is a miserable prospect, and to put social tariffs at this scale on a sustainable footing the Government must at least part-fund them for the most vulnerable groups. 

Industry can and should contribute to any funding: we believe that an operator’s share of the social tariff population should determine who pays what, with those operators that carry fewer social tariff customers contributing more.

BT also believe that in these changing times, policy makers must look again at whether the other sources of wealth in the internet value chain can play a greater role and contribute more fairly and sustainably to the ever increasing costs.

The Fabian Society’s report looks wider than connectivity, with innovative ideas to help people get devices, and to develop the skills they need to use them. 

Together we can bridge the digital divide, but Government, and all of industry, must play their part.

You can find out more here Bridging the divide | Fabian Society and read the full report - Bridging the Divide.