Connected Nations 2016
The United Kingdom depends on various infrastructures, and one of the most important is the nation’s communications.
Fast, reliable communications enable businesses to generate prosperity and employment, and our countries to compete. They empower every citizen to take a full part in society and benefit from life’s opportunities. Communications also save lives, bind families and friends together, and keep us entertained.
Part of Ofcom’s role is to make sure that, as far as possible, we can make the calls we want to, where we need to, and that we can use the internet at acceptable speeds.
This annual report tracks the communications providers’ progress in growing the availability of good communications, and how the UK is working towards a robust and visionary next generation of services.
Over the course of 2016, the UK took another step forward in the coverage of its fixed and mobile communications. More people are, or can be, connected to the communications they need, and they are consuming more data as fixed and mobile services become increasingly woven into the fabric of their daily lives and work.
But it would be wrong to infer that the picture is universally a rosy one. For a significant number of consumers, and in many parts of the country, fixed broadband speeds are slow and mobile coverage is poor or indeed non-existent. Ofcom is therefore continuing to work with industry, the UK Government and the devolved administrations to explore ways to improve the availability and performance of these vital communications services.
A key part of this work is this annual Connected Nations Report; a ‘state of the union’ update on the coverage and performance of fixed broadband and mobile services that the UK’s consumers and small businesses are receiving. We also cover important developments in broadcasting and internet services and track security incidents that affect communications networks and services.
Below we present the highlights of this year’s findings, and expand on them further in the remainder of the report.
Download the Executive Summary (PDF, 1.0 MB)
Under the Communications Act 2003 ('the Act') Ofcom is required to submit a report to the Secretary of State every three years, describing the state of the electronic communications networks and services in the UK. We published the first report in 2011 and the second report in 2014.
However, we recognised after publishing the first report that some aspects of the communications infrastructure were developing rapidly and/or were of particular interest to Government and industry stakeholders, and therefore committed to providing updates on an annual basis. These updates have mainly focused on the areas of greatest change, such as coverage and capacity of fixed and mobile networks. This year's Connected Nations Report updates the report published in December 2015.
Download the Background to the report (PDF, 152.4 KB)
The quality and reach of fixed broadband infrastructure in the UK has advanced considerably over the last few years, both in terms of technology and services offered. Superfast broadband is now available to almost 90% of homes and small businesses across the UK and continuing investment by industry and Government will ensure further increases in coverage over the next few years.
This section explores the coverage and performance of fixed broadband services in the UK and highlights how consumers are using their broadband connections to send and receive more data than ever before. We note, however, that many consumers still cannot access adequate broadband speeds and highlight ongoing Government and industry initiatives aimed at improving the quality of broadband services for all.
The most important messages are:
- Superfast broadband coverage in the UK has improved significantly over the last few years. The coverage of superfast broadband has extended to over 25 million (or 89% of) UK premises, up from 83% in 2015. This creates the potential for better speeds and improved quality of service for both residential and SME consumers.
- There are still gaps in broadband coverage. Progress has been made in reducing the number of premises that cannot get acceptable speeds. However, around 1.4 million, or 5% of, homes and small businesses in the UK are still unable to receive download speeds greater than 10Mbit/s. This represents the lowest number of premises that would fall within the UK Government's proposed broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO), depending in its specification;
- The growth in the number of premises taking up superfast broadband appears to be slowing. Over 9 million, or 31% of, UK premises now subscribe to superfast services, up from 27% in 2015 and 21% in 2014. While this latest year-on-year increase is a reasonable improvement, these figures suggest that growth in superfast take-up might be reaching a plateau. Given the relatively high levels of superfast coverage, it is unclear why more consumers are not actively taking up faster services.
- Faster speeds mean that more data is being consumed. The average download speed of all broadband products in the UK is now 37Mbit/s, up from 29Mbit/s in 2015. Average monthly data volumes per household have increased by 36% over the past year, from 97GB to 132GB. The total volume of data transferred over fixed broadband networks in June 2016 was 2,750PB
Mobile services are playing an increasingly important role in our daily lives. This means consumers increasingly expect their mobile devices to work reliably wherever they are, whether at home, at work, or on the move. In this section we provide an update on the levels of mobile voice and data coverage achieved in different parts of the UK as of June 2016, and the total amount of mobile data being consumed. We also discuss the minimum levels of mobile signal needed to make a good quality voice call and how these relate to the mobile operators’ geographic coverage targets for voice call services.
The key highlights are:
- 4G roll-out: All four operators are in the middle of a major 4G roll-out programme, which provides, in some locations, similar connection speeds to those of fixed networks. To date, the roll-out of 4G services has primarily focused on providing higher-speed services to users in cities and towns. As it progresses, it is likely that 4G landmass coverage will continue to increase to at least match the coverage of earlier-generation 2G and 3G services. Some operators have also enabled voice calling on their 4G networks, which, together with voice over Wi-Fi, are helping to increase the number of places where consumers can make and receive voice calls.
- Mobile data growth: In the past year, mobile data consumption per subscriber has grown at a rate of 49%. Although still growing, this is less than last year’s growth rate of 64%. It is almost identical to the data growth rate on fixed networks. The volume of data carried over mobile networks remains a small proportion (around 4%) of data carried over all networks.
- More needs to be done to extend mobile coverage to all of the locations consumers want to use their mobile devices.There are two main reasons why additional steps are likely to be needed to meet future consumer expectations on mobile coverage.
- Firstly, the additional coverage improvements resulting from commercial investments by mobile operators in new network infrastructure will reach a plateau.
- Secondly, the existing geographic voice call coverage targets in licences, requiring 90% landmass coverage by the end of 2017, are based on lower mobile signal levels than those we have found to be necessary from our field testing work to deliver a good consumer experience. This means that when these targets are met, good geographic landmass coverage is likely to be below 90%.
The fixed and mobile services discussed in the preceding two sections of this report are used predominantly for the delivery of internet access services. In this section we touch on some of the issues relating to how these services link consumers to the online services and content they wish to access and, in particular, on the increasing role of regulators and policy makers in ensuring that these services operate in an equitable and open way.
These services now constitute the majority of traffic delivered over access networks and consumers have become increasingly reliant on them for both economic and social activity. As a result, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of their internet connection, in addition to the performance of the more traditional services such as voice telephony. Policy makers have recognised this and taken steps to ensure that all sources of content continue to be generally available to all end users and that particular services or classes of service are not unduly favoured unless justifiably necessary.
In this section we report on how internet service providers (ISPs) are supporting the delivery of internet services over their networks, including how they manage the flow of data over their networks and how they interconnect with other ISPs, content delivery networks and the wider internet. We also touch on how the new regulatory regime for internet access services aimed at ensuring “net neutrality” is being delivered.
The highlights are:
- A major package of new regulatory obligations, coupled with complementary enforcement powers for regulators, is in the process of implementation. This will result in greater transparency in how ISPs manage traffic, market their services and contract with customers.
- ISPs have already been improving the information they provide to consumers about the use of traffic management on their networks as part of a voluntary code of practice administered by the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG). Current traffic management practices in widespread use have minimal or no impact on most users on fixed networks but, given the fixed capacity and variable demand in specific parts of mobile networks, may have an appreciable effect on mobile users during peak periods in busy areas.
- The amount of internet data being delivered to consumers by major video content providers continues to increase. The use of content delivery networks (CDNs) also continues to increase: internet content is increasingly being served from caching servers embedded in the ISPs’ access networks and provided by the content providers.
- Larger-scale ISPs are progressively introducing support for the latest IPv6 internet addressing system;
- The lack of security of Internet of Things (IoT) and other low cost internet connected devicesis leading to their being targeted by malware and their use to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, increasing concerns over security of personal data.
Download the Internet access services section (PDF, 285.6 KB)
As consumers and businesses become even more dependent on communications services, our duties with regard to network resilience become increasingly important. Overall, while network failure incidents are not significantly increasing in volume or impact, underlying changes in network technology have implications for consumers that need an appropriate regulatory and policy response. This section summarises the major security and resilience issues that were reported to Ofcom over the past year and the key issues that need addressing in the near future.
Key themes are:
- The majority of security incidents reported relate to voice services, often affecting consumer access to the 999 emergency services;
- The majority of incidents are caused by the failure of hardware components, the loss of power supply or by software bugs;
- Incidents with an impact above one million customer-hours are uncommon, and are often the result of a unique and unexpected threat to security;
- The next few years will see a fundamental change in how voice telephony services are delivered, as obsolete PSTN legacy systems are replaced by new VoIP solutions. This process will bring benefits to users but it is important that it is managed in a way that minimises disruption to consumers. We outline a number of key principles that should be followed to ensure minimum disruption for consumers and businesses: that providers must communicate the migration process clearly to their customers and that no voice service users are worse off after the technology change, either financially or functionally.
- Mobile networks are increasingly important both as the main general communications channel for many users and the first choice for calls to emergency services. In this context, the current level of resilience of mobile networks, particularly to mains power outages, is an increasing concern. There will be a need for more focussed activity in this area involving Ofcom, Government and industry as part of the programme of securing and making key elements of critical national infrastructure more resilient.
Download the Security and resilience section (PDF, 231.4 KB)
The means by which television services are distributed and consumed have continued to evolve over the last year. Increasingly, broadcast and broadband delivery technologies are being brought together by more sophisticated consumer receiver equipment to provide consumers with a hybrid viewing experience. There has also been a continuation of the move towards higher resolution, more lifelike TV formats, with UHD (ultra high definition) content now available on some broadcast and broadband delivery platforms.
In this section we set out three key themes:
- The live consumption of TV channels remains popular with viewers: Viewing of live TV (i.e. broadcast TV content watched at the time of transmission) represents over 80% of viewing and is being complemented by an expanding range and capability of catch-up modes (digital video recorder and online).
- There has been a significant increase in both the number and sophistication of hybrid broadcast/broadband TV platforms: Hybrid TV platforms are continuing to develop, including the launch of Freeview Play on the DTT platform. These platforms are seamlessly merging broadcast and online content into one consumer experience, where the viewer becomes 'abstracted' from the actual means of delivery.
- The majority of consumers can receive HD and the first ultra-high definition (UHD) services are now available: 59% of households now access HD services and approximately 30% of TV sales support HD and UHD. UHD Blu-ray discs are available, and satellite and online distribution of UHD content has started. HD and UHD services require higher connection speeds, limiting their reach to households with higher speed broadband connections.
This interactive dashboard is intended to act as an interactive executive summary for the 2016 Connected Nations report.
Find out how we're working with major broadband providers to improve the quality of coverage information available to consumers.