But not everybody has access to or the ability to use these various channels. Those “unable, or less able, to access and use the internet effectively may be deprived of its benefits and have less choice as services move online” states Ofcom. This can create real problems for these ‘vulnerable customers’ with many now finding it difficult or expensive to access services and potentially excluded. In a bid to address this, the regulator is now taking steps in its ‘Fairness for Customers’ initiative to ensure the needs of this group are met and their equal rights protected.
From October 2018, Ofcom formalised the need for providers to put policies and “special protections” in place in order to identify and treat vulnerable customers fairly in its General Condition on vulnerability (GC C5). This states communication providers must “give sufficient consideration to the particular needs of people with disabilities and people whose circumstances may make them vulnerable.” At a minimum these policies and procedures must now include:
- Practices – For ensuring fair treatment and the appropriate treatment of consumers which the provider has been informed/can be expected to know are vulnerable due to: age, physical/learning disability, physical/mental illness, low literacy, communication difficulties, or changes in circumstances ie bereavement.
- Recorded information – Procedures to be put in place to ensure information on the needs of these vulnerable customers is recorded. Various channels should be open to the provider to contact and receive information from these consumers.
- Monitoring customer service – The impact and effectiveness of these policies and procedures must be routinely monitored and assessed.
In addition, there are also some specific services that must be made available to these consumers. These include:
- Directory Services – publicly available telephone services need to be accessible in various forms (other than print) and that the consumer must be able to request and be connected to a number.
- Relay Service – access to the Ofcom text relay service for those who, due to a disability, need to make or receive all or part of a call in text form. This should be offered at an equivalent price to a non-relay call and a special tariff scheme applied for the additional time taken.
- Emergency SMS – those with hearing or speech impairments should be given access to an SMS service to contact the emergency services free of charge by mobile service providers.
- Priority repairs – those with a disability should be given priority if they have a genuine urgent need for a landline repair.
- Third party bill management – those with a disability should be able to nominate a person to receive and pay bills or deal with enquiries with respect to non-payment on their behalf without becoming personally liable.
- Bills and contracts in accessible format – make available documentation for those who are blind or visually impaired in an alternative format which is free of charge.
- Review new services – consult the Communications Consumer Panel to ensure that the needs of disabled and vulnerable users are accommodated in the development and provision of services.
Ofcom also laid out it plans to support vulnerable customers in its Annual Plan 2019/20. In it, the regulator states its ambitions for the Fairness for Customers initiative which includes provisions for vulnerable customers. This includes curbing harmful pricing practices which were identified in:
- Fixed broadband – pricing practices for dual play customers as addressed in the ‘Helping consumers get better deals’ statement (concluded in February) specifically focused on vulnerable customers. This advised that GC C5 would be exercised to ensure such customers were communicated with effectively at the end of their contract. The compulsion for providers to reach out to customers between 10-40 days before their contract ended was met with some reservation as it was felt 10 days was too short a period by some consumer groups.
- Mobile handset/contract bundles – users often continue to pay high rates when their bundled handset/service contract has ended. It was recognised that this often penalises vulnerable customers who may not have the ability to discern their right to a reduced monthly rate once they had paid for the handset. A statement on this is expected in Q3 2019.
These examples illustrate how closely linked vulnerability and affordability can be. These two issues have for some time been debated in the finance sector where providers have sought to better assess risk and deal more effectively with customers on the basis of their circumstances. The common consensus? That data and analysis must be used to identify and serve these users and that communication is key to preventing them from feeling marginalised.
Recognising the need to formalise guidance, Ofcom has agreed to “identify examples of best practice” and to work more closely with other regulators and consumer groups to develop a programme of work specifying minimum standards. This will eventually be published as an industry guide. Ofcom has also committed to holding industry events to further these aims, beginning with a workshop in May. This saw telecoms providers, consumer groups, charities and other regulatory bodies come together to establish how vulnerable customers can best be identified, catered for, and communicated with.
Looking ahead, Ofcom’s 2019/20 report also alludes to the future switch-off of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). This will see all landline customers migrated across to to Voice over IP (VoIP) lines. Timeframes will vary from provider-to-provider but the expectation is that many will fall in line with OpenReach which will withdraw its Wholesale Line Rental products by 2025.
Many vulnerable consumers use the PSTN not only for landline telephony but also to support security and fire alarms or telecare devices. In a statement released in February, Ofcom concedes that “those who are elderly, need a new broadband connection or have accessibility or disability requirements, may need additional support during this change.. [and] when installing or using new equipment”. To prepare for this, ‘downstream providers’ will be required to identify customers using critical services, develop communication plans and put in place extra protection measures to minimise disruption.
Ofcom’s All IP Working Groups will oversee the switchover and ensure consumer protection from harm and we could potentially see further regulation in this area. With this in mind, communication providers would be well advised to ensure that the policies and practices they put in place today to meet the GC C5 requirements also enable them to ensure a smooth transition for vulnerable users. Essentially, identifying, communicating with, and providing auxiliary specialist services for vulnerable users needs to become an integral part of how future services are devised, marketed and supported.