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UK broadband coverage: What's the reality?

Ofcom's latest survey of broadband coverage paints a picture of overall improvements in speed and coverage. But is the reality less appealing?

Broadband in the UK is OK but could be better. That is the general conclusion to be gleaned from the latest report by the industry regulator on the state of play.

The Ofcom Infrastructure Report for 2014 runs to some 200 pages and is Ofcom's second full analysis of the UK's "communications infrastructure" - the first was in 2011.

The good news is laid out clearly enough in the report: "Fixed broadband coverage is almost universally available and the average download speed for the entire UK is currently 23Mbits/s." But the qualifications are already there to see in those two word "almost" and "average".

The Ofcom report includes a map of broadband coverage for the whole of the UK that also shows mobile phone coverage, TV, and wi-fi.

It's worth noting it reckons my average home broadband speed should be 43.1Mbits/s with a low of 1.1 Mbits/s and a high of 152 Mbits/s. That's a bit optimistic: I think I can remember two days in the last month when the speed of my broadband was getting even close to that average.

The report acknowledges what many people already knew about UK broadband: "Broadband speeds vary considerably." When it comes to the availability of broadband, Ofcom sets out a three-tiered platform:

  1. Basic broadband - greater than 2Mbit/s. The Government's Universal Service Commitment aims for universal availability of at least 2Mbit/s broadband, the report says. It estimates that only 3 percent of UK premises fall below that threshold but then says, "although this percentage is small, the lack of even a basic broadband service poses considerable problems for those affected". Which begs the question of Ofcom: if you recognise the problem and you are the regulator why don't you do something about it?
  2. Standard broadband - greater than 10Mbit/s. There is emerging evidence that a typical household requires a download speed of around 10Mbit/s. Below this level, demand is likely to be constrained, says Ofcom. The report continues: "We estimate that 15 percent of UK households cannot currently receive 10Mbit/s". In other words, around 15 percent of households have a service that Ofcom thinks is not good enough. Which again begs the same question as my previous bullet point.
  3. Superfast broadband - greater than 30Mbit/s. "The deployment of superfast broadband, delivering download speeds of 30Mbit/s and above, started in 2009," Ofcom says. It then goes on to point out that it estimates that 75 percent of UK households can get superfast broadband if they want it. It then goes on to point out that only 21 percent have taken it up

In addition, Ofcom has identified four specific sets of concerns about broadband: rural availability; 'not-spots' in cities; the peer-to-peer availability of superfast broadband to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs); and the need for a roadmap from superfast, or higher speed broadband.

"Reaching the most rural premises in the UK is always a challenge," the report acknowledges because it is more expensive to deploy networks "in areas of low population density". The government is looking at the range of technological options, the report says, which might be used "to provide superfast broadband to the 'final 5 percent'." (I say: don't hold your breath.)

Then the report points out that one specific challenge "is that the Fibre to the Cabinet technology commonly used by BT to deliver Next Generation Access (NGA) does not always deliver superfast broadband speeds". This happens, the report says, when the length of the connection from a customer to a cabinet is too long to support a speed of 30Mbit/s. It is a particular issue in Northern Ireland but in the UK as a whole it affects the equivalent 3 percent of the population, according to the report.

City not-spots are areas with no internet service. They are generally caused when there is no street cabinet to upgrade, because a customer has a direct connection to the local exchange, the report says. "Work is underway considering how best to take fibre closer to the customer where there is no cabinet," which again means 'watch this space'.

However, as the report points out, "alternative commercial solutions are already available in a number of urban areas, including wireless solutions from a variety of competing providers".

The report also addressed the specific problems for SMEs. "The current availability of superfast broadband based on BT and Virgin Media NGA technology is lower for SMEs than for residential premises," the report points out. At a national level, only 56 percent of SMEs have access to NGA-based superfast broadband, compared to 75 percent of UK premises overall.

This again is an area that Ofcom says it will return to.

Further Reading:

BT admits to talks over buying O2 mobile network

Ofcom plans UK 4G spectrum auction