Price rises are never welcome, but for broadband customers it's common to face increases - some as large as 80% - when your fixed-term contract ends.
Typically this is the time to either haggle or switch providers, but with some currently unable to switch and others having difficulty contacting their provider, what are your options? We've been in touch with the biggest UK broadband providers to find out.
In a nationally representative survey of 4,000 people exploring how easy it was to contact service providers during lockdown, we discovered that broadband providers were the second most difficult to contact, beaten only by travel insurance providers.
Some 53% of broadband customers told us they had struggled to contact their broadband provider in the past month. Prominent issues included long call waiting times and a lack of online chat functionality, with one in 14 saying they'd been unable to get in touch with their provider at all.
A greater reliance on broadband might have made customers more likely to contact providers about connection issues. But some customers will also have been facing substantial price rises, as it's typical for the major providers to raise prices at the end of a minimum contract period.
A reasonable proportion of customers have become more inclined to get in touch with their broadband provider during lockdown:38% told us they'd become more likely to try to contact their broadband specifically to negotiate the price they pay. A further one in five customers were considering contacting their provider to make changes to their contract.
Another way to secure a cheaper broadband deal is to switch providers entirely. However, one in seven of the customers we surveyed whose fixed-term contract had recently come to an end said they'd been unable to switch.
It's true that the coronavirus outbreak has made switching difficult for a subset of customers. If you're a subscriber, for example, you may have found yourself unable to switch to a provider that uses the Openreach network, such as , or . This comes down to restrictions around home visits for Openreach engineers, as they have only been able to assist vulnerable customers and those without a connection, rendering some others unable to switch.
We've heard from customers who have been in this exact situation. Jo from Worthing saw the price of her deal rise to £50.50 per month after initially paying £25 on her fixed-term contract with Virgin Media. She'd begun the sign-up process for a cheaper deal with a provider on the Openreach network, but lockdown scuppered her plans. She's since received mixed information from her new provider about whether a switch is still possible.
To explore the kinds of price rises customers could be facing during lockdown, we conducted a snapshot investigation of deals from the major providers ending in April 2020.
We looked at 12-month and 18-month deals ending in April 2020 as they were originally advertised by the major providers - together these six providers supply nine in 10 of the broadband customers in the UK.
We took note of the introductory price and the 'standard' price as advertised in April 2019 (for 12-month deals) and October 2018 (for 18-month deals). We used this to calculate an average price increase for deals from each provider.
|Average advertised price increase for 12-month deals ending in April 2020||Average advertised price increase for 18-month deals ending in April 2020|
|BT||n/a||BT told Which? it has capped the price increase between introductory and standard deals at £8 per month, so customers won't face the increases originally advertised (these were 42.4% on average).|
|Sky||n/a||Sky told Which? it has capped the price increase between introductory and standard deals at £5 per month, so customers won't face the increases originally advertised (these were 56.4% on average)|
|Based on analysis of deals contracted 16 April 2019 or 1 October 2018 as originally advertised by providers. n/a means the provider did not offer this contract length.|
End-of-contract notifications are a prompt to consider contacting your provider to negotiate a better price or to switch entirely. Customers who are out of contract usually pay more - around £9 a month on average.
One simple way to ensure you don't pay too much for broadband is to simply ask your provider for a better deal. You'll be asked to commit to a new fixed-term contract for a discounted price.
We've found , but customers typically do it over the phone. Recently, providers' call centres have been operating at reduced capacity due to coronavirus, meaning many are not as easy to contact as normal.
We spoke to BT, TalkTalk and Sky to discuss the difficulties some customers are having, and find out what they're doing to help.
BT told us that customers with BT, and don't need to renegotiate their contracts with their provider because they are already offered the best deals available via end of contract notifications. BT has recently capped the price increase between introductory and standard deals at £8 per month - so customers won't face the increases originally advertised when they took out their deals - but EE and Plusnet do not cap theirs.
Sky has also recently reduced the increase between introductory deals and standard ones to £5 a month. It encouraged customers to re-contract on to its new deals online, avoiding the need for a phone call. Its call centre remains open but is prioritising vulnerable customers.
TalkTalk said it has been sending 'one-click' emails to customers coming to the end of their contracts, allowing them to easily re-contract and benefit from the same prices available to new customers. Its call centres are also open between 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday but it is prioritising vulnerable customers. It is also actively working to ensure customers continue to stay connected, even if they face financial difficulties.
We also spoke to Virgin Media to find out how it's assisting customers like Jo who was struggling to switch. Unlike some other providers, it still encourages its customers to get in touch over the phone. It's taken measures to improve the availability of its customer service team, including recruiting 500 new staff. It also continues to provide customers who struggle to pay for their deals with a basic 20Mbps service.
When we let it know of Jo's circumstances, Virgin Media contacted her to offer a new deal. She originally was still to pay £101 for two months at her increased price, while she had been struggling to get in touch with her new provider about the switch. Virgin Media has since reduced her outstanding balance by 50% and has offered her a new deal for £35 a month.
Difficulties around switching have made for an awkward situation for broadband customers. The situation is out of the control of Virgin Media and other alternative networks, but we don't think that any one should be left worse off due to delays to the switching process.
However, this situation could be improving soon. Openreach has now announced that it has begun a phased return to home visits, but will only conduct them if the job is quick, and low risk.
If you're not on the Openreach network and are mulling switching over, the first thing to check is whether you have an active phone line at your property. One way to check is by putting your postcode and address into your desired provider's website. Another is to plug a phone into the line and check for a dial tone. If there is one, the line's active.
If you're facing a price rise and want to stay with your current provider - or you're unable to switch - your first step should be to contact your provider to discuss the amount you pay.
Where possible, try doing this online first. If you haven't been sent a link in an end-of-contract notification, use our guide to to find links for providers' live chat and social media accounts, as well as their phone numbers.