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Broadband customers unable to get through to their provider due to the impact of coronavirus on customer service operations could be hit with price increases as large as 80% when their minimum contract comes to an end, according to new research from Which?

Widespread call centre closures and busy phone lines mean that many consumers are struggling to contact a new provider to switch or speak to their existing provider if they have a problem or want to negotiate a better deal.

While some providers offer online facilities to help customers recontract, those who don’t or encourage customers to contact them by phone, run the risk of leaving people with no choice but to suck up the often higher cost or spend ages waiting to talk to a human being.

In a survey, the consumer champion found that half (53%) of people had encountered difficulties with contacting their broadband provider in the last month – making it very difficult to make changes to their contract, or report issues with their service.

Even those who are able to contact a provider to arrange a switch have also faced problems due to restrictions in engineer visits.

Which? heard from a nurse on a coronavirus ward who was on a broadband contract which was £18 a month but when the cost went up to £50 after her minimum term ended in March, she started shopping around.

However, the lockdown restrictions meant she was unable to switch as she was told an engineer would need to visit but that wouldn’t be possible until restrictions were lifted.

After spending hours on the phone to talk to her provider they reduced her bill to £31 a month but she felt this is still too much and is considering getting rid of her home broadband altogether and using just her mobile phone instead.

Typical problems faced by those who have tried to contact their provider include two in five (42%) experiencing long call waiting times and one in 10 (9%) who reported being repeatedly cut off.

Jo Sangster, 55, from Worthing was paying £25 a month for a broadband and landline deal with Virgin Media, however the deal ended at the end of March and has now doubled, going up to £50.50.

Jo signed up to a provider using the Openreach network in March before lockdown restrictions were introduced. Since then, Jo has received mixed communication about whether she needs an engineer visit for her switch and when the switch will take place.

Virgin Media were asking Jo to pay £101 for two months at their increased price, while she was still struggling to get in touch with her new provider about the switch. They’ve since reduced her outstanding balance by 50 per cent and have offered her a new deal for £35 a month.

One in seven (14%) broadband customers told Which? that they were unable to switch providers during lockdown when their contract ended.

Broadband contracts tend to have a minimum term of 12 or 18 months, but after this price increases often loom for customers who don’t contact their current provider or take up a new contract with a different firm.

However, many businesses including broadband firms have struggled with call centre capacity during the lockdown making it difficult for some customers to speak to providers. While some companies also have online contact options, when it comes to calls they have been prioritising vulnerable people, key workers and those who have been left without a service.

This has left some customers reluctant to call their provider if they do not fall into any of these categories.

Until recently, Openreach – the network that supplies the majority of the UK’s broadband connections – had said that it would only be able to organise in-home engineer appointments for vulnerable people who can’t be helped by other means or those who don’t have a connection at all.

It 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.

Which? believes that all broadband providers should make it as easy as possible for their customers to make changes to their contracts online and be clear and upfront about switching during this time if it isn’t possible.

While there was a brief period at the beginning of the lockdown where this didn’t happen, customers who are now coming to the end of their contract should all be receiving notifications from their provider. It is essential that consumers who reach the end of their contract and want to switch providers or recontract are not left paying out of contract prices for longer than necessary.

Adam French, Which? Consumer Rights Expert, said: “Customer support is vital to keep people connected, and a good provider will not only deliver a decent connection but also good value for money and customer service when it is needed.

“End of contract notifications allow customers to know when their contract is coming to an end and when they are likely to face a price increase, but it’s important that there is then a straightforward way to make changes to their contracts that doesn’t leave them worse off if there are delays when contacting their provider.”

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