Ofcom: Still no decent broadband for 1m

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Around one million homes and offices still cannot get a decent broadband connection, Ofcom has found, though coverage is steadily improving.

The finding is part of Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2017 report – an in-depth look at communications networks in the UK and its nations. This year’s report outlines progress on the availability and take-up of broadband and mobile services, which are crucial to people’s personal and working lives.

Ofcom is concerned that around 1.1 million homes and offices, or 4 per cent of properties, still cannot get the broadband speeds needed to meet their typical needs. This is currently defined as broadband offering a download speed of at least 10 Mbit/s, with an upload speed of at least 1 Mbit/s – although Ofcom expects these needs to increase over time. The figure has fallen from 1.6 million premises last year.

Today’s report shows broadband speeds and access remain worse in rural areas, where properties are often situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet. Around 17 per cent of rural premises are not getting decent broadband services, compared to just 2% in urban areas.

Superfast available to nine in ten and bought by four in ten

Access to superfast broadband – defined by Ofcom as a download speed of 30 Mbit/s or more – continues to improve. The option of taking superfast broadband was available to 91 per cent of UK homes and small businesses (27 million) by May 2017, up from 89 per cent (25.5 million) a year earlier.

And more people are taking advantage of this, reflecting a growing demand for faster speeds. Four in ten premises (38 per cent, or 11.2 million) have bought connections that deliver  superfast broadband, up from less than a third (31 per cent, or 9.1 million) a year earlier.

Around 2.7 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), or 84 per cent of the UK total, can now get superfast broadband or faster – up from 81 per cent (1.9 million) in 2016. But around 230,000 SMEs across the UK are unable to get a decent broadband connection with download speed of at least 10Mbit/s and upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s.

Full-fibre broadband – where fibre optic cables are used all the way to the property – is only available to 3 per cent of homes and offices, up from 2 per cent a year earlier. Ofcom expects this figure to grow in the next few years as a number of network operators have recently announced plans to build new networks.

Ofcom is also taking a range of steps to help improve broadband coverage and speeds, including:

  1. Promoting industry-wide investment in full-fibre networks. These connections can deliver far quicker, more reliable broadband. Ofcom is making it easier and cheaper for competitors to lay their own ultrafast networks using BT’s network of telegraph poles and underground ducts
  2. Supporting plans for universal broadband. Ofcom has provided technical advice to the Government on its plans for homes and businesses across the country – including in rural and remote areas – to have the right to request a broadband connection with a download speed of at least 10 Mbit/s, and an upload speed of at least 1 Mbit/s.
  3. Ensuring better information for customers. Broadband shoppers must receive better information about speeds before they commit to a contract, and can walk away from their contract if speeds fall below a guaranteed minimum. New protections were set out by Ofcom in October.

The report shows the total amount of data carried over UK broadband networks increased by 52% over the last year. The average home broadband connection now carries 190 GBytes of data – the equivalent of around 100,000 digital photographs – in a month.

Steve Unger, Chief Technology Officer at Ofcom, said: “Broadband coverage is improving, but our findings show there’s still urgent work required before people and businesses get the services they need.

“Everyone should have good access to the Internet, wherever they live and work. So Ofcom is supporting plans for universal broadband, and promoting investment in full-fibre technology that can provide ultrafast, reliable connections.”

Further action needed on mobile coverage

Ofcom has changed the way Ofcom measures mobile coverage, to reflect the growing usage and expectations of smartphone users. Today’s devices receive far more data, but also require stronger signals, than older phones.

Ofcom has raised our requirements for what constitutes coverage, using new crowd-sourced information from thousands of handsets to capture mobile users’ real experiences.

This means people can get the most accurate ever picture of mobile coverage, using Ofcom’s interactive maps and smartphone app, which have been updated today. These tools provide clear, detailed information on the availability of mobile calling, text and data services in different parts of the country.

Ofcom’s updated coverage data shows that nearly six in ten premises (58 per cent) can receive an indoor 4G mobile signal from all four networks, up from 40 per cent last year.

But too many people in the UK still struggle to get a sufficiently strong signal – particularly in rural areas and on roads and railways. ‘Total’ geographic 4G coverage, where reception is available from all four mobile operators, is available across just 43 per cent of the UK’s landmass.

For calls and text messaging, 30 per cent of the UK’s geography does not receive a signal from all four operators – down from 37 per cent last year.

While these figures show improvements, Ofcom is calling for further investment from mobile providers to improve coverage.

Ofcom is also taking direct action, including:

  1. Setting new requirements in operators’ licences. Early next year Ofcom will consult on detailed plans to improve coverage in rural areas, by setting coverage obligations on mobile airwaves being released in future. The requirements would be written into licences of operators who are awarded ‘700 MHz’ frequencies, which are suitable for providing strong coverage over very wide areas.
  2. Enforcing existing obligations. Mobile operators are already required to provide calls-and-text coverage to 90 per cent of the UK landmass by the end of this month, while O2 must provide an indoor 4G signal to at least 98 per cent of premises by the same time. Ofcom will report on mobile companies’ compliance with these obligations early next year, and any possible enforcement action if they fall short.
  3. Increasing network capacity. In July, Ofcom announced plans to auction more airwaves this year to improve current mobile capacity, as well as frequencies for future 5G services. The auction is currently subject to legal appeal by BT/EE and Three, which Ofcom hopes can be resolved promptly in the interests of mobile users.
  4. Helping to improve coverage on trains. Ofcom has recently installed equipment on Network Rail’s engineering train. This will build a detailed picture of actual mobile reception across the UK’s rail network, informing Ofcom’s work with Government to help improve coverage.
  5. Working with Government. Ofcom is also helping to implement laws that will make it easier for mobile operators to improve coverage by sharing and installing equipment, such as mobile masts.
  6. Extending use of signal boosters. In October Ofcom decided to allow controlled, unlicensed use of mobile phone ‘repeaters’, which amplify signals between a mobile phone and the operators’ transmitter. The changes come into effect early next year.

Steve Unger added: “People have never relied so much on their phones in daily life. As a nation, we are using 13 times more mobile data than just five years ago.

“While the industry works to improve mobile coverage, it’s vital people can get a trustworthy picture of reception across the UK. Using our tools, mobile users can see which network offers the best service in areas where they live, work and travel, before they take out a new phone contract.”


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