The news of more tough restrictions across much of the UK was not the New Year’s present we wanted. Millions of children are now having to take lessons online again, while millions of adults are working from home once more.
It is worth remembering though that many key workers, like nurses, doctors, teachers, care workers, delivery drivers, shopkeepers and many more are still out in the field. Two of our engineers received MBEs for the work connecting COVID testing sites and hospitals. There are heroes like them across the country and we are so grateful for everything they do.
But for the tens of millions of us in the UK stuck at home, the internet has once again gained vital importance in our daily lives. The Prime Minister stated how important fast internet was on a call of business leaders I participated in earlier this week.
Our priority has been making sure our network can cope with rising demand. For the past few years, we have been making sure that it was resilient enough to withstand spikes like these and we are glad it has. 2020 saw us break our peak network data record several times, as well as setting a new record for 24-hour data usage. Internet use was up by 50% across the year, but the hard work of our engineers meant that network reliability was rarely compromised.
But it’s also vital that internet is affordable – especially now, when the economy is weak, and so many people are seeing shortfalls in their income. We are proud to be a value provider. We are consistently among the best value providers in the market (while our network is also one of the most reliable).
That’s important right now. We work hard to prevent unnecessary costs in order to pass on these savings to customers. Importantly, our broadband plans are uncapped – and always have been. Our customers do not have to worry about higher usage leading to higher bills. A whole family can be at home working and learning and you’ll still pay the same for your broadband.
It’s also important to recognise that many people may find themselves in financial difficulty, even for short periods. We have introduced extended payment plans and have put in place support for anyone struggling to pay their bill due to Covid-19. We’ve also put in place a dedicated UK support team for vulnerable customers, and that group (plus those self-isolating) are given, where possible, alternative methods of communication if priority repairs to their services can’t be carried out due to Covid-19.
One thing that has rightly got attention this week is the effect of COVID lockdowns on children’s education. Not being able to go to school should not prevent a child getting the education they deserve. All children should have access to the internet to benefit from online learning. That includes those households who do not have a fixed connection and who may be struggling to afford access to fast, reliable broadband at home. As a value provider, we understand that as much as anyone.
It’s a complicated problem and one that is hard to fix overnight. However, as of this week we are now in discussions with both national and local government, the regulator Ofcom as well as Openreach, our network operator, to find solutions.
One thing we would like to discuss with government is creating a voucher scheme for broadband for families having to home school, who don’t currently have it but might find it hard to pay a commercial rate. We are calling for the government to consider creating a vouchers scheme that would last as long as the COVID pandemic is with us. Such a scheme would be an expansion of a pilot programme that we are already involved in alongside the DWP to provide fixed connections to digitally excluded jobseekers in the North West. At a time when connectivity has never been more important it is vital that we explore sustainable solutions to supporting school children and their parents. We would welcome discussions with Government on the programme design and how best to encourage widespread take-up of the scheme.
In the meantime, I would like to thank my colleagues who have been working incredibly hard in recent weeks. It’s a fluid situation, and we are still waiting for the beginning of the end of this crisis. But one thing is sure: we will strive to keep you connected to the things and the people that matter most to you.
Tristia Harrison, TalkTalk CEO