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Broadband speeds are up but UK’s fibre is still lagging

Broadband speed 100 Mbps

Ofcom has proudly proclaimed the majority of UK can now access ultrafast broadband at home and at work, but its fibre diet still leaves much to be desired.

According to the watchdog’s latest Connected Nations report, 53% of UK properties, residential and commercial, can access broadband speeds of 300 Mbps, often referred to as ultrafast. While this might sound impressive, Ofcom also slipped in that fibre connectivity is now up to 7%, a 1% increase from the last report in September.

“For the first time, a majority of homes and offices can now get ultrafast broadband – which allows people to work, stream and shop online at the same time,” said Ofcom CEO Sharon White.

“We’ve also seen the number of homes that can’t get broadband fall by a third in the last year. I think that progress is really encouraging, but it’s vital we keep it going. So, we’re working with the Government to bring in the new universal broadband service, which will give everyone the right to request a decent connection. We’ll announce who’ll deliver the scheme in the summer.”

As it stands, roughly 95% of the population can access superfast broadband, speeds of 30 Mbps, while 53% can achieve ultrafast speeds, more than 300 Mbps. Only 619,000 premises throughout the country cannot get what is deemed ‘decent’ speeds, more than 10 Mbps, though soon these users will be able to request appropriate connections under the Universal Service Obligation (USO), which is supposedly getting underway in the next couple of months.

Having finished its consultation in February, Ofcom proposed that BT and KCOM should be designated as the Universal Service Providers, though the final decision is set to be published in the summer. This, in theory, should bring the final 2% of premises into the world of ‘decent’ broadband speeds.

Although the availability of ultrafast broadband has increased quickly over the last couple of years, ultrafast connections were available to less than 2% of the population in June 2016, progress on fibre has been sluggish. Since May 2017, fibre availability across the country has increased from 3% to 7%.

While progress is progress, one would have to assume it would have to speed up should Ofcom want to meet government ambitions. The aim here is to have 15 million homes fed a fibre diet by 2025, with the whole country covered by 2033.

Looking at the fibre connectivity conundrum, the results are quite varied. In England and Wales, fibre penetration sits at the average of 7%, while it up to 16% in Northern Ireland and down at 5% in Scotland. Unfortunately for the Scots, 4% cannot access 10 Mbps either, while 5% are living in the slow lane in Northern Ireland.

Looking at how this compares to other countries, it is a bit of a mixed bag and questions the claim as to whether the UK is the leading digital nation politicians often so proudly proclaim.

Austria Targeting 99% coverage for all by 2020 for ultrafast broadband. Fibre penetration of 1.5%
Bulgaria 100% coverage with at least 30 Mbps until 2020, and 50% take-up rate for 100 Mbps. Fibre penetration of 32.2%
Cyprus At least 30 Mbps for all households and businesses by 2020
Denmark 100 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload speeds available for all households and businesses by 2020. Fibre penetration of 19%
Finland By 2025 all households should have access to at least 100 Mbps connections. Fibre penetration of 25.6%
Germany 50 Mbps for all households by 2018. Fibre penetration of 2.3%
Hungary 100 Mbps take-up for 50% of the households by 2020
Italy Availability of services above 30 Mbps for all by 2020
Lithuania 100% coverage with 30 Mbps by 2020. 100 Mbps subscriptions for 50% of households by 2020. Currently has fibre penetration of 46.9%.
Malta Already achieved 100% broadband coverage with 30 Mbps
Poland 50% of households should have internet connectivity of 100 Mbps by 2020. Forecasts 100% of households should have access to internet connectivity of at least 30 Mbps by 2020. Only has 5% fibre penetration
Romania By 2020, 80% of households with access to over 30 Mbps broadband and 45% of households with subscriptions over 100 Mbps
Slovenia 100 Mbps to 96% of households by 2020
Sweden By 2020, all households and companies should have access to broadband at a minimum capacity of 100 Mbps and by 2025. Currently has fibre penetration of 43.6%
Belgium Aim is to provide speeds of up to 1 Gbps to half of the country by 2020
Croatia 100% coverage with 30 Mbps and 50% take-up rate for 100 Mbps until 2020. Fibre penetration of 1.9%
Czech Rep 30 Mbps for all households and at least 100 Mbps for 50% of the population by 2020. Fibre penetration of 14.6%
Estonia Full coverage with connections of at least 30 Mbps by 2020 and aims to promote take-up of ultra-fast subscriptions with at least 100 Mbps with the objective that these account for 60% or more of all internet subscriptions by the same year
France Targets of ultra-fast broadband access for all households by 2022
Greece 100% broadband coverage with minimum speeds of 30 Mbps with at least 50% of households benefiting from 100 Mbps by 2020
Ireland 77% coverage of high-speed broadband by the end of 2018 and 90% coverage by 2020
Latvia 100% coverage with 30 Mbps and 50% household penetration with 100 Mbps by 2020. Currently leading the European race for fibre with 50.3% fibre penetration
Luxembourg National broadband plan aims for networks with ultra-high-speed rates, more precisely 1 Gbps download and 500 Mbps upload for 100% of the population in 2020
Netherlands Currently, almost 98% of urban and rural areas in the Netherlands have been covered with 30 Mbps
Portugal 30 Mbps for 100% of the population and a coverage of at least 100 Mbps for 50% of all households until 2020
Slovakia 30 Mbps for 100% of the population and a coverage of at least 100 Mbps for 50% of all households until 2020
Spain 100% coverage of 30 Mbps and 50% take up of 100 Mbps and more of households by 2020. Currently has 44% fibre penetration

This is where you have to be a bit more careful when reading the statistics and claims. Ofcom numbers are suggesting 7% fibre across the country, but this is 7% of premises who have the availability of fibre. The figures in the table, from the FTTH Council Europe, are looking at the number of actual subscribers. For the UK, the FTTH Council Europe estimates the UK has a fibre penetration of 1.5% when you count subscribers.

That said, it is easy to be very doom and gloom here. Ofcom can only force the hand of availability, it cannot force consumers to upgrade to the best available service. As mentioned before, progress is being made, though it is always useful to place these figures into a bit of context.

“While the number of households which can access superfast and ultrafast broadband continues to grow, uptake of these faster speeds remains the challenge for the broadband industry, with fewer than half of broadband users subscribing to the better services,” said Richard Neudegg, Head of Regulation at uSwitch.com.

On the mobile side, coverage is also looking perfectly suitable for the moment. Using crowdsourced data from consumer handsets, Ofcom estimates the signal levels needed to meet targets are available at least 95% of the time.

78% of the UK’s geographic area is now covered by all four operators for calls, up eight percentage points from June 2017, however, 5% of the UK’s geographic area is served by no operators. Outdoor access to decent quality data services through 4G has also increased from 48% to 67% over the same period, varying dependent on the telco. Not-spots in total have decreased to 8% of the UK from 21% in June 2017.

Looking at indoor coverage, 78% of UK premises can now receive a decent 4G signal from all operators, up 14 percentage points from June 2017. This again varies depending on the individual regions, Wales and Northern Ireland are below the national average at 73% and 59% respectively, though the numbers are steadily heading in the right direction.

Finally, the transport network. 57% of all A and B roads now have 4G coverage from all operators, while 4% are designated not-spots. This is for data services however the number drops to 2% when you are looking at calls.

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