Solid progress, but further to go for a Connected Britain
Speech by Sharon White, Chief Executive, Ofcom to Connected Britain 2018 conference, Tuesday 19 June 2018
I’m delighted to be here. Speaking as a football fan, I’m also grateful for your time during Poland versus Senegal. If it finishes 5-all, I’ve got a lot to live up to.
Every year, it seems the themes we are discussing today – broadband and mobile, speeds and coverage – become ever more intrinsic to people’s daily lives.
Much of the focus at today’s conference has been on ultrafast fibre and 5G mobile. Those are subjects close to Ofcom’s heart. They are central to our work promoting investment in the networks of the future, and making the UK a leader in full-fibre broadband.
But this afternoon, I want to focus on getting Britain connected to the basic services that are still not universal in this country.
If water and energy are the utilities we need just to survive, broadband and mobile are the connections we need to live.
Without them, people can no longer participate effectively in modern life. For many people, they are now the only practical means of keeping in touch, listening to music, managing money, accessing public services or watching TV.
No wonder that, last year alone, the amount of data flowing into our homes grew by more than half. Mobile data grew almost as much.
Widely-available, high-quality connections have never been so important to people and businesses. Since I joined Ofcom in 2015, I have been encouraged by the progress industry has made in extending networks, reducing ‘not-spots’, improving repair times and increasing speeds.
The number of homes without a decent broadband has declined from four million to less than one million. Average speeds have doubled – from 23 megabits per second, to 46. The number of premises without decent 4G reception has fallen from 11 million to less than one million.
That solid progress has been driven by a combination of commercial ambition, Government policy, public funding and, I hope also, regulation.
But we must go further.
Too many people around the UK, from the Cornish cliffs to the coast of Caithness, still cannot get online. Every year, nearly 30,000 people contact Ofcom with broadband and mobile problems. Often these are frustrating, affecting stories.
“Last year”, said one, “our son had to revise for his GCSEs using a phone, as we had no Wi-Fi. This year, he’s still got no decent Wi-Fi to revise for his A-levels. We can’t order food online, or even pay bills online. We are at our wits’ end.”
Situations like those are just unacceptable in 2018, and I know you share my frustration at hearing of them. People must be able to get online and use their phone wherever they live, work and travel.
When it comes to getting decent connections to everyone, I feel we are rather like the marathon runner who has covered 95% of the distance, but cannot afford to flag.
Completing the final mile is the hardest – tough terrain, and outdated planning rules.
So how can we ensure that good broadband and mobile is available to everyone across the UK?
First, let’s consider mobile.
Achieving comprehensive mobile coverage
In 2013, we set rules requiring 98% of homes and offices to have an indoor 4G signal from at least one operator. That target has been met.
In 2014, mobile firms agreed with Government to cover 90% of the UK’s land area with reception for phone calls and texts. They have achieved that.
And this year, we have taken further action to improve mobile. Releasing more airwaves; legalising devices that boost mobile signals; and supporting the Government effort to relax planning laws for masts.
Because each mobile network serves millions of customers, we are increasingly focused on what I call comprehensive coverage – which means being able to get a signal from all four networks – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.
A quarter of the UK lacks comprehensive coverage, and so does most of our major-road network. I don’t want to discourage current plans to deliver a 4G signal on the moon, but there still isn’t one on much of the A70.
So we have set out strong rules to boost signals, as we make new airwaves available for mobile services. This spectrum will be ideal for covering wide areas. And we can place requirements on the winning bidders.
Coverage rules are tried and tested: we have used them with 4G. Next year’s auction of new airwaves is a major opportunity to improve and extend mobile reception, particularly in rural areas.
At the point we sell the spectrum next year, we estimate that 200,000 rural homes and offices will still lack a good signal for mobile data and calls – from any operator.
So we have consulted on plans to require one successful bidder to introduce good, indoor reception for most of those premises.
And to improve reception for people on the move, we propose to require at least two operators to reach 92% of the UK land area with good reception.
That means a signal strong enough for reliably making calls, browsing the internet and watching videos.
We have also proposed rules to improve mobile networks in the Nations where availability is currently poor. Coverage would rise by eight percentage points in Wales, and by twelve points in Scotland.
And this week we have provided technical advice to the government on how they might extend mobile coverage even further.
As we get beyond 92% of the UK’s geography and potentially towards 100%, increasing coverage means building masts in remote areas with no mobile signal at all.
Our view is that some form of cross subsidy would be necessary to do this. To keep costs down, there would be a strong case for contracting a single operator to build and operate masts where there are currently none, which all customers could then use.
How much would it cost? According to our estimates, to provide good mobile coverage across virtually all of the UK landmass would cost up to about £6 billion. That is an approximate number. It would need to be refined as operators gain practical experience in outlying areas. But it helps to illustrate the cost.
Improving mobile reception is a national priority, and we will continue to work closely with DCMS to explore every available solution.
The same is true of broadband.
And, so I would like to finish by updating you on how Ofcom is implementing the Government’s plans for everyone in the UK to have the right to request decent broadband by 2020.
Achieving universal broadband
In March, the Government finalised the terms of this new, universal service obligation. This is an important safety net for people who might otherwise get left behind.
Legislation states that the universal service will provide a line capable of delivering ten megabits-per-second for downloads, and one megabit-per-second of data being uploaded.
We think that specification will need to increase over time. But today, it meets most households’ needs. It should mean people in the same house can browse the internet, Skype and watch movies in HD.
Encouragingly, the number of premises that cannot get decent broadband is steadily falling. It was down by 150,000 in the last quarter, to about 900,000. (Though that’s still 900,000 too many.)
Openreach continues to connect more homes and offices to superfast broadband. Nine in ten can now get it. Public funding programmes will narrow the gap further.
But by 2020, when the universal service is introduced, we think 600,000 homes and offices could still be unable to get a decent connection.
That number may come down further. Openreach is planning more ‘fibre spines’ in rural areas, making it more feasible and cost-effective to deliver fibre to rural doorsteps. I know Clive Selley wants to bring Openreach’s fibre network closer to thousands of people who are currently in not-spots, before the universal service comes in. He has my, and Ofcom’s, full support in that.
For people and businesses still without decent broadband, I know it cannot come soon enough. So we are working to help introduce the universal service – a major, national infrastructure project – in the quickest possible time.
And today, we are inviting all companies wishing to provide the service to come forward.
This might be a single, national provider. But equally, we want to hear from other firms up and down the country who have experience of delivering broadband to local communities.
We welcome different options.
The process will be open and transparent. And we will appoint the company – or combination of companies – who can get the job done most quickly, efficiently and effectively.
So to conclude, here are Ofcom’s priorities.
Helping to make universal broadband – and nationwide mobile coverage – a reality for the thousands of people who cannot get a decent connection.
Regulating to promote investment.
Working with industry and Government.
Closing the gap between rural and urban areas.
And helping to get the entire UK online, all the time.
Comprehensive coverage is an ambitious goal. But we all believe it should be a priority for our country, I believe it can be achieved.
Just as important as the challenge ahead is the progress we have made to date. That has already made a difference to the lives of people up and down the UK.
No marathon analogy can do justice to the scale of the UK’s main telecoms network: not 26 miles long, but 100 million.
Yet we really have come a long way. Now is the time to go further, and get Britain truly connected.