Government support is crucial if we are to build a digitally inclusive society


Blog – Marc Allera, CEO, BT’s Consumer Division

For the most vulnerable in society, the past year has been incredibly challenging. For those who have been unable to see loved ones, travel to their workplace or access critical services it is no exaggeration to say staying connected has been a lifeline.

At BT and EE, we believe we have a responsibility not only to our customers but to society more broadly, and our efforts since the start of the pandemic continue as we pursue a path out of lockdown.

Our priority has been to keep people connected at a time when demand for data and bandwidth has surged along with the need to access vital services and support. For NHS workers and customers who identified themselves as vulnerable, we introduced unlimited data to make sure they stayed connected while they were dealing with the pressure of the pandemic.

Then, in response to the challenge of school closures we launched our Lockdown Learning programme to support tens of thousands of families with free mobile data, free access to Wi-Fi and BBC Bitesize and Oak Academy websites for home learning. Working with the Good Things Foundation, we are now equipping 10 million people with the technology skills they need to flourish in the digital economy. Yet we know there is still more we can do.

Meeting vulnerable customers’ needs

Our purpose is to Connect For Good, and this has been at the heart of how we have responded to the pandemic. Our teams are now trained to address the acute needs of vulnerable customers, with priority fault repair available should things go wrong. We work closely with a number of charities who advise on accessibility as part of our Customer Inclusion Panel. We are also implementing annual account reviews for our vulnerable customer base, to help ensure those who might struggle to engage with us are on the best deal for their needs.

Last week, Ofcom published its review looking at progress against its six fairness commitments. These commitments exist to help ensure people are always treated fairly by their provider. It could not come at a more important time. Followed in good faith and with purpose, Ofcom’s fairness commitments will help create the connected, digitally-inclusive UK we all want to see.

Taking fairness further

But Ofcom’s fairness principles should not be seen as the ceiling of ambition; we want to go above and beyond the guidance published in last week’s review. Last week we also announced the launch of BT Home Essentials, which we will introduce in late June. This is BT’s at-cost social tariff to connect those who need it most with low-cost fibre broadband and calls. We are proud to be extending eligibility to all customers on Universal Credit and other means-tested benefits, helping a potential 4.6 million households.

BT alone cannot make our society digitally inclusive, even as we continue to invest in our networks to keep up with unprecedented customer demand for data in this new world of connectivity. So, we are calling on all fixed broadband operators to implement a social tariff costing no more than £200 per year, which offers speeds of up to 10mb upload/40mb download where available, for customers on low incomes and Universal Credit.

We are offering BT Home Essentials at cost price to help those who might struggle to afford broadband and landline. At the same time, we know that for some families £15 per month is still a stretch. If, as a society, we want to do more to help those people, Government support will be crucial. Funding or subsidies for social tariffs could make a very significant difference, in the same way that winter fuel payments help vulnerable people with their energy costs. Removing the VAT from bills for those on social tariffs could also be a big help to those who need it most.

Across our industry, we all need to step up to the challenges facing an increasingly connected but fractured society – with far too many vulnerable people falling between the gaps.

As we focus on building back better, we must also build back together.

Marc Allera, CEO, BT’s Consumer Division. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @marcallera