Comms industry ignores elderly and low incomes

10 May 2005

The elderly and lower income households are becoming disconnected from the communications revolution, the independent consumer panel of UK communications watchdog Ofcom said today in a warning shot aimed at the communications industry that could be just as relevant to the Irish market today.

Ofcom’s warning shot across the bows of the rapidly evolving communications sector called on the industry to understand its customers better and to target the needs of older people, lower income households and SMEs or lose their business.

The panel revealed research that showed consumers are floundering under a barrage of information and confusion, which puts them off taking advantage of new technologies.

Of particular concern was the fact that awareness and understanding of communications technologies declines significantly with age – by age 65 only one in five people keep themselves abreast of technological changes such as broadband and digital radio.

As well as this, low income households have a higher reliance on mobile phones rather than fixed lines and are spending proportionally more than higher income households for their phone bills through prepayment deals.

The research found that older users and people with disabilities feel frustrated both in terms of understanding communications technologies and services but also the physical equipment; disabled people under 65, for example, report twice the level of difficulty (26pc) in using mobile phones compared to the UK average.

Less than a third of UK consumers have heard the term ‘digital switchover’ and a significant proportion do not know where to turn for advice.

Consumers need clearer information in layman’s terms about the benefits of individual technologies and comparisons of tariffs; they are suffering from information overload.

Some 45pc of small businesses say they do not need access to the internet and fewer than half keep themselves informed about new developments. A quarter of SMEs do not know of any sources of advice or information to turn to for help.

Colette Bowe, chairman of Ofcom’s independent consumer panel said: “Our research provides a firm stake in the ground for the communications market. It is of serious concern to us that so many customers feel it is so hard to grapple with new advances related to phones, TV, radio and the internet.

“This is a wake up call for the industry really to listen to all its customers, not just the young. It makes business sense to do so and the industry risks turning off a significant amount of potential customers if it doesn’t act now,” Bowe said.

By John Kennedy