UK telecoms spent £940m in COVID-19 support during 2020

While the novel COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm early last year, UK telecoms operators were quick to respond to people who desperately needed to be connected online with initiatives amounting to £940m ($1.29 billion), a recent report stated.

According to UK-based research firm Assembly Research, many telcos offered additional allowances of texts, calls and data, free access to healthcare information, and more recently zero-rated access to education resources and even devices to help with online learning.

“Over the course of the pandemic so far, we estimate the value of these initiatives to be £940m, with many likely to remain in place until life returns closer to normal,” the report said.

The pandemic changed the way people across the world interacted in a flash, especially with the strict precautions, measures, and lockdowns enacted on a global scale to curb the spread of the virus; people required more connectivity to maintain their careers, education, and entertainment.

The research firm tracked more than 50 initiatives around the UK, 20 of which addressed the needs of the most vulnerable (worth £340m), 19 have been made available to all customers (£250m), six are targeted at key healthcare workers (£220m), and four have aimed to help small and medium sized businesses recover (£130m).

“Initially they began by zero-rating access to NHS websites, to ensure access to important health information for all customers. Support was then extended in the form of additional allowances of texts, calls, and data,” the report highlighted.

In parallel, the elderly and most vulnerable groups were provided unlimited calls from landlines, or additional mobile data, as operators focused on offering considerate bundles for the unemployed; while healthcare workers were often offered additional (often unlimited) mobile data, as well as special discounts on mobile bundles.

With the pandemic forcing education into the online realm, telcos supported students with zero-rating popular educational websites, and to the extent of providing devices to support online learning.

It is worth mentioning that within Research Assembly’s findings, the most vulnerable groups made up the largest support share of the initiatives, amounting to £340m or 34.6 percent.

“This is perhaps unsurprising, due to the particularly difficult situation these customers face, but it is also testament to the commitment of the operators to assist the elderly, children in disadvantaged families, and those who have lost their incomes,” the report highlighted.

An example of this could be seen through Vodafone’s job seekers’ offer, which provided unlimited data, calls, and texts for £10 per month while they are on Jobseekers Allowance, instead of its normal rate of £35 per month.

In parallel, Virgin Media launched a home broadband bundle for those on Universal Credit, providing 15Mbps speeds for £15 per month. “The initiative available to all customers represented the second largest share of the support being provided £250m, or 26.3 percent,” the report found.

Initiatives for key workers in the healthcare sector total £220m, or 23.4 percent of the support available.

NHS workers also greatly benefited from the initiatives made by the various UK telcos, with EE providing them with a 14-month unlimited data boost at £25 per month. SMEs received support of about £130m or 14 percent during the second half of 2020, the report noted.

Veering outside of the UK, Assembly Research also tracked initiatives from 40 operators across 20 other countries, which mirrored the actions taken by their UK counterparts.

“In nearly every country, operators have become more understanding and supportive towards consumers and businesses who cannot afford to pay their bills on time. In some parts of Italy, which were among the most affected by COVID-19 initially, operators offered free connectivity or refrained from credit actions for some time,” the report said.

According to the research firm, connectivity support for healthcare workers has been commonly documented in countries such as Australia, Spain, and Italy, while student assistance with online learning has been provided in more than 10 other countries.