Digital divide declines, but 1.4 million homes cannot get decent broadband

16 December 2016

The number of UK properties unable to get a decent broadband connection has fallen by one million over the past year, new research by Ofcom has found.

But 1.4 million UK homes and offices – or 5% of properties – remain unable to sign up for broadband speeds over 10Mbit/s, the speed required to meet a typical household’s digital needs. This is down from around 2.4 million, or 8%, last year.

The findings are part of Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2016 report – an in-depth look at the state of the UK’s telecoms and wireless networks. This year’s report shows good progress on the availability and take-up of communications services, which are crucial to people’s personal and working lives.

However, the report finds there is much more to do – particularly in boosting mobile and broadband coverage, and improving the quality of service provided by telecoms companies.

For example, rural areas still lag behind on broadband. Around a quarter of properties in rural areas – nearly 920,000 – cannot receive a connection of over 10Mbit/s, often because they are situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet.

To help close this speed gap, Ofcom has today set out its technical advice for the UK Government on implementing its plans, announced in 2015, for universal broadband.

Today’s Connected Nations report also presents the current level of mobile coverage across the country. While the picture is improving, with 4G reaching more premises, Ofcom wants to see better coverage across the UK’s landmass.

So we have begun discussions with mobile operators to look at radical and ambitious solutions to deliver universal mobile coverage, to keep pace with consumers’ needs.

Steve Unger, Ofcom’s Chief Technology Officer, said: “Mobile and broadband coverage continued to grow this year, but too many people and businesses are still struggling for a good service. We think that is unacceptable.

“So we’re challenging mobile operators to go beyond built-up areas, and provide coverage across the UK’s countryside and transport networks. Today we’ve also provided technical advice to support the Government’s plans for universal, decent broadband.”

The number of properties lacking access to decent broadband has fallen significantly in recent years, and is likely to fall further, given on-going investments by industry and Government.

But the universal service would ensure every home and small business in the country has the right to a decent, affordable broadband connection of 10Mbit/s or above by the end of the current parliament.

Ofcom’s analysis shows that this speed is sufficient to meet the current needs of a typical household. The online activity of users who can access this speed is far less constrained than those who cannot.

However, households are likely to need greater speeds as new, data-hungry applications emerge. We will therefore monitor the universal service and recommend its minimum speed to rise when necessary.

The final design of the service will be decided by Government, and then implemented by Ofcom. We have today set out technical advice to inform the Government’s decisions on factors such as speed, eligibility, affordability and funding.

As part of this, we have scoped three potential scenarios – standard broadband offering a 10Mbit/s download speed; a more highly specified version of this service, including a 1Mbit/s upload speed; and a superfast broadband service.

Government has said its preference is for the universal service to be funded by industry. Under this model, the companies providing the universal service would recover any unfair cost burden from a fund paid into by a range of telecoms companies.

Ofcom has also considered the need for universal broadband to reach the most vulnerable customers, including those on low incomes. There could be a need for a social tariff to provide affordable broadband for these customers, as there is for landline telephones today.

The coverage and quality of broadband across the UK has increased significantly over the past year, the Connected Nations report finds.

The average download speed of a broadband service in the UK jumped by 28% in the last year, from 29 Mbit/s to 37 Mbit/s. This reflects not only better coverage, but also people choosing to pay for faster broadband packages.

Almost a third of homes (31%, or 9.1 million) have now chosen to take up superfast broadband – a download speed of 30 Mbit/s or more – up from one in four (27%, or around 8 million homes) a year earlier.

Superfast broadband is now available to nine in ten UK homes small businesses (89%, or 25.5 million), up from 83% last year. This has been driven by BT upgrading its network; Virgin Media converting more homes to faster packages; ‘alternative’ fibre only networks such as CityFibre, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear; and the Government’s ongoing Broadband Delivery UK programme.

Superfast services are now available to 80% of small and medium sized enterprises or SMEs (almost 1.9 million) – up from 68% in 2015.

However, 15%of the UK’s SMEs are in concentrated areas such as business parks – of which 36% do not have superfast speeds, and 11% cannot receive 10Mbit/s.

Seven in ten premises (72%) can now receive an 4G mobile signal indoors from all four networks, up from just 28% last year, as operators continue to roll out faster mobile broadband. Ofcom rules mean that O2 must deliver a mobile data service to 98% of UK premises by the end of next year, and other operators are expected to follow in order to remain competitive.

However, availability across the UK’s landmass remains low. Many people in rural areas, and those travelling by car and train, suffer from poor mobile signals. ‘Total’ geographic 4G coverage, where a signal is available from all four operators, is available in just 40% of the UK landmass – though this is up from 8% in 2015.

For voice calls, a third (34%) of the UK’s geography does not provide a signal from all four operators, an improvement on last year’s 42%. This will improve further following an agreement between the Government and all major operators to achieve better geographic coverage of voice services by the end of 2017.

Mobile phone users increasingly need coverage everywhere, so Ofcom is examining how regulation can help make that happen, and has called on network operators to go beyond current targets by exploring options for reaching areas without premises – such as transport lines and remote locations.

Ofcom has also published its International Communications Market Report 2016, which compares communications services in 19 major countries.

Among these, the UK has the fifth best availability of broadband services offering 10 Mbit/s or above – ahead of almost all European countries, but behind Singapore, Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands.

The UK also performs well on the availability of broadband connections involving fibre optic cables – such as fibre running to the street cabinet – ranking fifth behind the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan and Singapore.

However, Ofcom remains concerned that the UK has very low coverage of ‘full fibre’ broadband, where cable and fibre lines connect directly to homes and offices. Here the UK ranks seventeenth out of 19 countries. To address this, Ofcom is requiring BT to allow other providers to use its infrastructure to build their own fibre networks, directly to premises.

The UK performs well on prices, ranking second – out of five major European countries, plus the USA – for the cheapest communication services. Low prices in the UK were largely driven by cheaper mobile phone services, particularly for tariffs that include a high data allowance

People can check whether their mobile reception and home broadband connections are giving them the best service, using the new version of Ofcom’s app for smartphones and tablets, launched today.

The Ofcom Mobile and Broadband Checker now checks the performance of the user’s mobile reception, as well as their home broadband. If the app finds a problem with either, it will explain possible causes and provide practical troubleshooting advice.

The app also shows voice, 3G or 4G coverage from all major network operators, both indoors and outdoors, at any location in the UK – allowing people to compare which network offers the best service in places such as the home or office. Broadband availability and speed information is available using address-level data for the first time.

The app is free to download and available for both Apple and Android devices from the Apple App Store or Google Play. It is also available as a web based version for desktop and laptop devices.