Watchdogs lash out at ‘digital gap’

Consumer watchdogs are expressing growing alarm at the way utilities are discriminating against low-income groups by offering cut-price gas over the Internet.

The move is seen as another example of the “digital divide” – between those who can afford to take advantage of the Internet’s low prices and those without easy access to a PC.

A spokeswoman for the Gas Consumers’ Council says: “We agree that it is unfair. We will look into it and speak to Ofgem [the industry regulator]. We need to focus on low-income consumers as well.”

The first Internet-only gas company was set up last month by Amerada, while other companies such as Powergen offer a &£30 cash inducement to switch to its dual fuel supply through its Website.

Virgin is also tipped to launch its own Internet utility service under the name Virgin Home Services later this year.

Amerada’s service, called Energy Online and described as a world first by the company, asks customers to sign up online, report their meter reading online and pay online. The Website says: “If you sign up and deal with us exclusively over the Web, we can cut out administration costs and pass the money saved directly onto you in lower bills.”

An Ofgem spokesman says utilities marketing their services on the Web must agree to supply everybody who asks, even if they do not submit their request through the Internet.

But he says there is no restriction on charging less for Internet-based services. “If a company wants to market itself online to Internet customers, that’s fair enough.”

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