Older people, and those with disabilities or low incomes, are still using communications services less than others, Ofcom has found.

However, the gap is narrowing as these groups make greater use of computers, smartphones and tablets.

The findings are part of Ofcom’s first Access and Inclusion report, which examines whether the communications market is delivering for vulnerable consumers.

Communications services are increasingly essential to everybody’s lives. For people in vulnerable circumstances, they can be particularly important, especially if they cannot easily leave their homes because of disability or illness.

Research finds that:

  • Disabled people are using tablets and smartphones much more. Access to both types of devices rose by 16 percentage points from 2014 to 2016, reaching 46% and 57% respectively.
  • Internet access among disabled people also increased, from 65% in 2014 to 79% in 2016. However, that still leaves one in five disabled consumers who are not online.
  • People on lower incomes are more likely to shop around compared to those on higher incomes, suggesting that competition is working for those who want to save money.
  • Consumers on lower and moderate incomes continue to use services at similar levels to those on higher incomes, but an increasing number of younger consumers are experiencing problems with debt. Ofcom is currently reviewing its fair debt management policies for mobile and broadband.
  • Older people tend to have much lower engagement with the communications market, and less likely to shop around or switch.

Pricing trends

 Ofcom has also published research into pricing trends across the communications market.

The study finds that:

  • People are spending less on telecoms and TV services. Average monthly household spend on landlines, fixed broadband, TV and mobile services fell by 9% to £113 in real terms in the decade to 2015, despite a small (2%) increase in 2015.
  • People are also getting much more for their money. Average monthly home broadband data use grew from 8GB to 97GB between 2008 and 2015, while average connection speeds increased from 4Mbit/s to 29Mbit/s. Similarly, average mobile data use increased from 0.1GB in 2011 to 0.9 GB in 2015, and 4G (which launched in 2012) accounted for just under half of UK mobile connections in 2015.
  • The price of mobile data services has fallen significantly. The average cost of a ‘basket’ of mobile services – including 500 minutes of calls, 200 texts and 5GB of data – fell from £57 in 2012, to £40 in 2016.
  • Entry-level bundle prices have also fallen. The average price of the major UK ISPs’ cheapest landline and superfast broadband bundles fell by 25%, to £34, between 2009 and 2016. Over the same period, the average price of triple-play superfast bundles with pay TV fell by 16% to £43.
  • Some pockets of consumers are being hit with price rises. The price of landline line rental has increased, despite a decline in wholesale costs. These landline-only customers are more likely to be older and from lower income households. Ofcom is currently consulting on plans to cut the bills of BT’s landline-only customers – who make up 80% of the landline-only market – by at least £5 per month.
  • Some mobile customers may over-pay for their handset. Contract mobile customers who have the cost of the handset combined into their monthly bill may end up paying too much for their handset, if they continue to pay their full monthly charge once the contract term is up.

Overall, people in the UK are receiving good value for money from their communications services. But the report finds that the prices people pay depend heavily on their ability, or willingness, to shop around for the best deals. As the number of choices in the market has increased, so has its complexity.

Ofcom wants to ensure that consumers are aware of the choices available to them, and can switch easily to the services that best meet their needs. Alongside our work in simplifying switching processes, we are exploring appropriate prompts to make customers aware that they may benefit from changing tariff or provider.

In the coming weeks, we expect to publish our first report for consumers on quality of service on communications services, providing the information they need to choose the best provider for them.

Ofcom also audits and accredits price comparison websites, which can play an important role in helping people to shop around.