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TalkTalk customers who are struggling in the face of the credit crunch will be permitted to take a temporary holiday from payments, as part of a new scheme announced today.

Under the terms of the plan, customers who have been with the internet service provider for six months or more and who are facing economic hardship will not have to pay the £6.49 monthly charge for broadband and home phone for a period of six months. During this time, they will have free access to the internet and phone line and need only pay line rental. At the end of the period of grace, Emergency Plan customers will not be expected to pay back the money and their contract with TalkTalk will not be extended.

The launch of the Emergency Plan, which is officially in operation from January 30th, comes amid a backdrop of worsening economic gloom. Official figures released last week revealed the UK is now in recession after GDP contracted by a larger-than- expected figure of 1.5 per cent during the final quarter of last year.

Meanwhile, unemployment soared to 6.1 per cent at the end of November, since which time tens of thousands of job cuts have been announced across a range of industries. With this figure expected to soar in months to come, TalkTalk anticipates that it is probable that the number of people falling behind with their phone and broadband payments this year could double to eight million.

According to TalkTalk, the Emergency Plan will allow those worst affected time to sort out their finances while still providing a basic service to make sure they can still access the internet and make phone calls.

Charles Dunstone, chief executive officer of TalkTalk Group, said: “We want to help our customers as much as we can as we know many face financial difficulties this year. If they are worried about their household finances or their ability to pay for whatever reason, we encourage them to call us.

“If you're anticipating hardship, perhaps as part of a job loss, your home phone and broadband service has never been more important in helping you get back on your feet. We hope our Emergency Plan will keep people connected, and give them the opportunity to apply for jobs and learn new skills.”

The Emergency Plan offers users a broadband connection speed of 512kbps with a 1GB download limit. They also continue to receive inclusive UK weekend calls and anytime calls to other TalkTalk customers, while international, premium and mobile calls are barred by the provider to help cut their outgoings. Once the six-month period has expired, customers will revert to the standard My TalkTalk package.

In order to apply for inclusion on the Emergency Plan, customers must call the customer service department where their circumstances will be assessed by the company on a case by case basis. However, the company has stipulated that those who are already 50 days or more behind with payments will ineligible until such time as they have cleared their debt.

The move to introduce the Emergency Plan from TalkTalk, whose £6.49 monthly charge is already the cheapest available on the market, has been praised by broadband sector analysts and the telecommunications watchdog for the proactive approach to helping struggling, crunch-hit consumers that it represents.

Jessica McArdle, marketing manager of Top 10 Broadband, the UK’s largest independent broadband comparison site, welcomed the Emergency Plan as a positive move from the broadband sector to ameliorate the impact of the downturn.

She said: “TalkTalk’s Charles Dunstone has become the consumer’s knight in shining armour by extending a period of six months payment free broadband to customers experiencing economic hardship.

“TalkTalk’s broadband bailout scheme is an extremely responsible answer to the problems facing broadband users as well as UK consumers as a whole – for once the consumers rather than big businesses are being bailed out.”

Ms McArdle’s comments were echoed by John Fisher, chief executive officer of digital inclusion charity Citizens Online, who noted that the Emergency Plan will help “ensure that none of its customers are unnecessarily excluded from the world of digital technology and learning”.

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