Better broadband and mobile... wherever you are
Encouraging investment and improving broadband and mobile coverage, so everyone benefits.
High-quality connections have never been so important. We want to make sure everyone can access fast and reliable broadband services, regardless of where they live or work.
We are living through a communications revolution. People are more reliant on fixed broadband connections to help them with their everyday needs.
People are also using more data over their fixed connections. In 2019, data use on fixed lines increased to an average of 315GB per connection per month, from 240GB in 2018.
This is roughly equivalent to watching three to four hours of high definition (HD) content (films, sports, video clips) per day. The trend shows no signs of slowing down and will place a strain on the UK’s legacy copper networks in the coming years.
The growing availability of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) will continue to reduce the number of premises unable to get a decent broadband connection (estimated in December to be around 189,000 premises).
The future is gigabit capable networks: ultrafast, fibreoptic networks offering speeds of up to 30 times the current average, as well as being more reliable.
What we’ve done
In March 2018 the UK Government finalised the terms of a new universal service obligation (USO). This means affordable broadband connections and services must be provided throughout the UK with a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s.
Ofcom is responsible for implementing the USO. This year, we designated BT and KCOM as the broadband universal service providers. The USO launched on 20 March 2020 so consumers can now request a decent broadband connection from BT or KCOM. Enabling competition is central to our efforts. By creating the right competitive conditions for companies to invest, we expect investment in full-fibre to emerge from both new competing networks and BT.
We aim to create the best possible regulatory environment to encourage investment and innovation.
In July 2018, we outlined plans to provide longer-term regulatory certainty and support for competitive investment in fibre networks across the UK. We said that by 2021, we will regulate residential and business markets more holistically, bringing together our assessments into a single review, lasting at least five years instead of three.
In March 2019 and January 2020, we set out details on our proposed regulatory framework to support investment in full-fibre networks. The Wholesale Fixed Telecoms Market Review consultation included proposals to:
- provide greater access for rival companies to Openreach’s telegraph poles and underground ducts, helping to cut the upfront cost of building these networks by around half;
- adopt different approaches to regulating Openreach’s residential broadband products in different parts of the UK, aimed at creating the right conditions to stimulate investment in both parts of the UK where we believe competing networks to Openreach are likely to be built and those where such competition is unlikely;
- regulate Openreach’s ‘leased lines’ – high-speed data connections used by large organisations – in a similar way to residential broadband products, by varying our approach geographically to reflect the level of current or prospective competition;
- support Openreach in managing a smooth transition from its older copper networks and then to retire them, helping to lower costs and further consumer take-up of full-fibre based services.
The consultation process closed in May 2020 and we are now working towards confirming our plans in early 2021 before the new framework comes in to force from April 2021.
Outcomes and next steps
Ofcom’s priority is to make good quality broadband networks a national reality, particularly for the thousands of people who cannot currently get a decent connection.
Our proposed new regulatory framework is designed to support and further the full-fibre business case of competing providers as well as Openreach.
Since announcing our plans:
- Openreach has increased its build target for Fibre to the Premises in stages, from 3 million by 2021, to initially 4 million and now 4.5 million premises. Similarly, having originally stated an intention to reach up to 10 million premises by 2025, then 15 million by around 2025, this has now been extended to 20 million premises by the mid to late 2020s;
- CityFibre has acquired FibreNation and extended its target to eight million premises from five million;
- Virgin Media has continued to build at a steady rate;
- Hyperoptic has secured a new majority shareholder; and
- Gigaclear is progressing with its targeted business model in rural areas.
The Government’s ambition is to deliver gigabit-capable broadband nationwide by the middle of the decade. We will continue to work with industry, as well as central and devolved Government, to extend the availability of basic and full-fibre broadband services across the UK.
We want to make sure people can access mobile services wherever they happen to be, allowing them to make calls, access the internet, stream content and use smartphone apps.
In today’s smartphone society, being able to make calls and get online on the move is crucial to people’s personal and working lives. Data traffic over the mobile networks has almost doubled in the two years to 2019. However, while mobile coverage across the UK is gradually improving, there are still parts of the country where coverage is patchy and the consumer experience can be inconsistent.
Although most of the country can get coverage from at least one mobile company, there are significant differences in urban and rural areas. Ninety-six per cent of urban areas can get 4G reception from all four operators, compared to 63% of rural areas.
What we’ve done
In December 2018 we announced plans to make more spectrum available to support the demand for internet services on the move. Our consultation on the release of 200 MHz of new spectrum, across the 700 MHz (80 MHz) and 3.6-3.8 GHz (120 MHz) bands, included proposals to extend mobile coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years by two operators.
Following this, the four national mobile network operators – BT/EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – have developed a proposal for Government to support their plan for a ‘shared rural network’ (SRN) as an alternative to our proposals.
We provided technical advice to the Government throughout the process to negotiate this arrangement and have now varied the licences of each mobile operator to include binding commitments to deliver the SRN outcomes.
We will also play a role in reporting on progress on a regular basis in the years ahead.
In July 2019 we confirmed plans to allow shared access in a number of spectrum bands. For example, spectrum in the 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz bands is available for shared use and can be used by existing mobile handsets. Additionally, users can now access on a shared basis spectrum in the 3.8-4.2GHz band where the ecosystem is starting to develop. We have also allowed third parties to use spectrum already licensed to mobile operators, in areas where it is not being used by them.
We are opening up spectrum as wireless technologies are starting to play a significant role in the digital transformation of many industry sectors from manufacturing, logistics, mining, agriculture and connected devices that will form the ‘Internet of Things’. In March 2019 we started our engagement programme with different industry sectors, to provide insight over the role of wireless and support organisations in understanding the role of spectrum in delivering their digital transformation objectives.
Through the year we have also continued our programme of work releasing more spectrum to facilitate the launch of new mobile services for people and industry, including 5G.
The combination of different spectrum bands allows mobile network operators to increase data capacity to cope with significant demand in urban centres, enabling people to enjoy more reliable internet access.
In addition, we have worked with the Department for Transport, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Network Rail and a number of other stakeholders on the issue of rail connectivity. Our focus has been on gaining insight into passenger and operator requirements for connectivity to trains.
Outcomes and next steps
The shared rural network plan could see up to £1bn invested by Government and industry over the coming years to increase mobile coverage. We will be monitoring the progress made by the operators in meeting the coverage commitments included within their licences.
All UK mobile network operators have already launched new 5G services in the largest cities. We will finalise the rules for the award of 200 MHz of new spectrum across the 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz bands before the end of the year and will hold the auction as soon as practicable.
Our approach to enabling shared access and local access use of spectrum in several bands will enable wireless connectivity solutions across a wide range of companies, communities or organisations. The spectrum bands we have opened for sharing could also be used to deliver fixed wireless broadband, helping to connect homes and businesses in areas where it is particularly challenging to lay cables in the ground. Our next phase of work will consider the potential of a fully automated authorisation approach for providing wireless services over shared spectrum.
We will report on the progress that mobile operators are making towards delivering their new licence commitments, before assessing compliance as the commitments fall due. And we will continue to consider how we can further support people by making the best information available to them through our online coverage maps and consumer advice.