Vivien Coker regularly calls BT to make sure she’s getting the cheapest possible broadband, phone and television deal.
Over the years, she has usually managed to get a few pounds knocked off her monthly bill.
But in recent months, the 77-year-old widow from Devon has had no luck and is now struggling to cope with the rising cost of living.
Losing out: Around 4.2 million households are eligible for cheaper ‘social tariffs’. Yet just 55,000 have so far signed up for these low-cost deals
She had all but given up when she read about a little-known discount for financially vulnerable customers in Money Mail last month.
After she called BT to ask about it, her bill was immediately slashed to £45, saving her more than £30 a month.
She told a friend in a similar position about the deal, who was also given a substantial bill reduction.
But why on earth weren’t they offered this cheaper price earlier?
Vivien estimates she could have saved more than £300 if she been told about the scheme when it launched last June.
‘It makes me really angry and I feel rather hard done by,’ she says. ‘The firm knew from my phone calls that I was struggling, and not once did it mention this deal was available. I’m sure it’s happening with lots of companies that could help vulnerable customers who have money problems but don’t.’
And Vivien is right. About 4.2 million households are eligible for cheaper ‘social tariffs’. Yet just 55,000 have so far signed up for these low-cost deals, according to watchdog Ofcom.
This is despite 1.1 million households in the UK struggling to afford their broadband bills, the regulator’s research shows.
Last month, Ofcom warned telecoms giants they must do more to raise awareness of the cheaper deals. It said they should promote discount deals and get in touch with customers through a range of different communication channels, to increase the chance of reaching those in need.
Yet when Money Mail scoured the major providers’ websites, we struggled to find any information about the deals.
On BT’s website, social tariffs were not offered on the home page or when setting up a new broadband order, and details could only be found by searching for the term using Google. Sky’s deal was also nowhere to be seen on its main website.
Crunch time: Some 1.1 million households in the UK struggling to afford their broadband bills, the regulator’s research shows
With Virgin Media, it took three clicks on the website before the first mention of the scheme, which was at the bottom of the list of possible deals.
Also, instead of writing to or calling customers they think could be eligible, such as those who have missed payments or with mounting debts, major providers currently require customers to contact them to ask for the deals.
Broadband giants are already under fire for hiking up prices by as much as 10 per cent in the middle of a crippling cost-of-living crisis.
And because these mid-contract price hikes are written into the terms and conditions by big-name providers such as BT, EE, John Lewis Broadband, Plusnet, Shell Energy Broadband, TalkTalk and Vodafone, customers face eye-watering exit fees if they try to leave. This has left many people struggling to keep up payments.
Sue Davies, head of consumer rights at Which?, says: ‘Social tariffs can make a real difference but woefully low levels of awareness and take-up are a reflection of how poorly broadband providers publicise these deals.
‘Companies must do much more to promote them and make it straightforward for customers to sign up.’
Exactly who qualifies for the deals depends on the provider. But if you claim means-tested benefits such as pension credit and universal credit, you are usually eligible. More than three million households qualify for pension credit alone.
How much you can save also depends on the company, but a typical standard broadband package is about £27 a month and social tariffs cost as little as £15. This means millions of people could save an average of £144 on their bill each year. Those on more expensive deals could save even more.
Social tariffs are not advertised on comparison websites, so you must contact the provider direct to find out if it offers discounts. If not, it may well be worth switching to a firm that does.
BT’s Home Essentials plan is available from £15 a month for people who receive benefits such as universal credit, pension credit and income support.
The person who receives the state benefit must be the account holder, and the plan only lasts for 12 months, after which time the customer must prove again that they are eligible.
Rising costs: Broadband giants are already under fire for hiking up prices by as much as 10 per cent in the middle of a crippling cost-of-living crisis
There are two broadband packages and one phone-line-only package available.
The essential tariff includes fibre broadband and 700 inclusive anytime minutes a month.
Customers can also get 67 megabyte (Mb) fibre broadband with unlimited calls for £20, or unlimited calls only for £10 each month.
Virgin Media O2 also offers an Essential Broadband social tariff for people on universal credit at £15 a month.
It includes 15Mb fibre broadband, has no fixed-term contract length and is excluded from any price rises. The provider also offers a Talk Protected landline service
for people over 65 and those who have additional accessibility needs, which gives them unlimited free calls to UK landlines and mobiles.
Just last week, Sky launched Broadband Basics, which could save you £5 on monthly bills if you claim universal or pension credit.
The plan costs £20 a month for 18 months for fibre broadband, and there are no early exit fees. However, it is only available to customers who already have Sky Broadband. It also includes Sky Pay As You Talk, which means you’ll need to pay for any phone calls you make.
The same deal is available to existing customers of Now Broadband, which Sky owns, but you will be entering an ongoing monthly contract and will need to give 31 days’ notice if you want to cancel.
London-based providers Community Fibre and G.Network also offer cheap social tariffs; and KCOM, which provides services in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, has a special deal costing £19.99 a month.
TalkTalk does not offer a social tariff but partners with the Department for Work and Pensions to offer six months of free fibre broadband to certain jobseekers.
In contrast to other suppliers, Hyperoptic’s Fair Fibre Plan is featured prominently on its website. Customers who take its 50Mb broadband and phone package will pay £18 a month, a £7 saving, or they can get a £10 discount on its 150Mb broadband and phone deal and pay £28.
The deals are available to new and existing customers on benefits such as pension credit, income support, housing benefit and universal credit.
James Fredrickson, Director of Policy and Regulation at the company, says: ‘We are very keen to offer these tariffs when we think someone might be helped by them. We will happily flag them when we think it might be appropriate.’
The supplier has also partnered with more than 50 councils to roll out its network across their area and connect social housing properties.
Five tricks to cut broadband costs
Save money at the end of your contract — new customers often get cheap introductory offers which can mean you pay up to 90 per cent less than with a standard tariff.
Broadband customers who switch away from the ‘big four’ providers (BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media) typically save as much as £190 on their bill; those with a TV and broadband deal could save over £200.
Call to challenge your bill and save an average of £85 a year. Customers of the major providers usually save most, with the average Three customer shaving £45 off their bills.
Avoid price rises
Consider switching to a provider that doesn’t have price rises baked into its contracts.
Hyperoptic, SSE, Utility Warehouse and Zen Internet never hike prices midway through a contract.
Bag extra discounts
Some providers offer mobile and energy deals or discounts on other services. For example, EE, Virgin Media and Vodafone offer discounted mobile phone deals, while SSE and Utility Warehouse often offer cheaper broadband and energy bundles.
Refer a friend
Many broadband providers offer bonuses if customers refer a friend. These usually come as a gift card, but some providers offer bill credit or money off your tariff.