Digital divide narrows, but 1.1m UK homes and businesses cannot get decent broadband
Around one million homes and offices still cannot get a decent broadband connection, Ofcom has found, though coverage is steadily improving.
- Further action needed to improve broadband and mobile coverage, particularly for people in rural areas
- Enhanced Ofcom app helps people check for coverage and compare providers
The finding is part of Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2017 report – an in-depth look at communications networks in the UK and its nations. This year’s report outlines progress on the availability and take-up of broadband and mobile services, which are crucial to people’s personal and working lives.
Ofcom is concerned that around 1.1 million homes and offices, or 4% of properties, still cannot get the broadband speeds needed to meet their typical needs. This is currently defined as broadband offering a download speed of at least 10 Mbit/s, with an upload speed of at least 1 Mbit/s – although we expect these needs to increase over time. The figure has fallen from 1.6 million premises last year. 
The report shows broadband speeds and access remain worse in rural areas, where properties are often situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet. Around 17% of rural premises are not getting decent broadband services, compared to just 2% in urban areas.
Superfast available to nine in ten and bought by four in ten
Access to superfast broadband – defined by Ofcom as a download speed of 30 Mbit/s or more – continues to improve. The option of taking superfast broadband was available to 91% of UK homes and small businesses (27 million) by May 2017, up from 89% (25.5 million) a year earlier.
And more people are taking advantage of this, reflecting a growing demand for faster speeds. Four in ten premises (38%, or 11.2 million) have bought connections that deliver superfast broadband, up from less than a third (31%, or 9.1 million) a year earlier.
Around 2.7 million small and medium-sided enterprises (SMEs), or 84% of the UK total, can now get superfast broadband or faster – up from 81% (1.9 million) in 2016. But around 230,000 SMEs across the UK are unable to get a decent broadband connection with download speed of at least 10Mbit/s and upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s.
Full-fibre broadband – where fibre optic cables are used all the way to the property – is only available to 3% of homes and offices, up from 2% a year earlier. We expect this figure to grow in the next few years as a number of network operators have recently announced plans to build new networks. 
Ofcom is also taking a range of steps to help improve broadband coverage and speeds, including:
- Promoting industry-wide investment in full-fibre networks. These connections can deliver far quicker, more reliable broadband. Ofcom is making it easier and cheaper for competitors to lay their own ultrafast networks using BT’s network of telegraph poles and underground ducts
- Supporting plans for universal broadband. Ofcom has provided technical advice to the Government on its plans for homes and businesses across the country – including in rural and remote areas – to have the right to request a broadband connection with a download speed of at least 10 Mbit/s, and an upload speed of at least 1 Mbit/s.
- Ensuring better information for customers. Broadband shoppers must receive better information about speeds before they commit to a contract, and can walk away from their contract if speeds fall below a guaranteed minimum. New protections were set out by Ofcom in October.
The report shows the total amount of data carried over UK broadband networks increased by 52% over the last year. The average home broadband connection now carries 190 GBytes of data – the equivalent of around 100,000 digital photographs – in a month.
Steve Unger, Chief Technology Officer at Ofcom, said: “Broadband coverage is improving, but our findings show there’s still urgent work required before people and businesses get the services they need.
“Everyone should have good access to the internet, wherever they live and work. So we are supporting plans for universal broadband, and promoting investment in full-fibre technology that can provide ultrafast, reliable connections.”
Further action needed on mobile coverage
Ofcom has changed the way we measure mobile coverage, to reflect the growing usage and expectations of smartphone users. Today’s devices receive far more data, but also require stronger signals, than older phones.
We have raised our requirements for what constitutes coverage , using new crowd-sourced information from thousands of handsets to capture mobile users’ real experiences.
This means people can get the most accurate ever picture of mobile coverage, using Ofcom’s interactive maps and smartphone app, which have been updated. These tools provide clear, detailed information on the availability of mobile calling, text and data services in different parts of the country.
Our updated coverage data shows that nearly six in ten premises (58%) can receive an indoor 4G mobile signal from all four networks , up from 40% last year.
But too many people in the UK still struggle to get a sufficiently strong signal – particularly in rural areas and on roads and railways. ‘Total’ geographic 4G coverage, where reception is available from all four mobile operators, is available across just 43% of the UK’s landmass.
For calls and text messaging, 30% of the UK’s geography does not receive a signal from all four operators – down from 37% last year.
While these figures show improvements, we are calling for further investment from mobile providers to improve coverage.
Ofcom is also taking direct action, including:
- Setting new requirements in operators’ licences. Early next year we will consult on detailed plans to improve coverage in rural areas, by setting coverage obligations on mobile airwaves being released in future. The requirements would be written into licences of operators who are awarded ‘700 MHz’ frequencies, which are suitable for providing strong coverage over very wide areas.
- Enforcing existing obligations. Mobile operators are already required to provide calls-and-text coverage to 90% of the UK landmass by the end of this month, while O2 must provide an indoor 4G signal to at least 98% of premises by the same time. We will report on mobile companies’ compliance with these obligations early next year, and any possible enforcement action if they fall short.
- Increasing network capacity. In July, we announced plans to auction more airwaves this year to improve current mobile capacity, as well as frequencies for future 5G services. The auction is currently subject to legal appeal by BT/EE and Three, which we hope can be resolved promptly in the interests of mobile users.
- Helping to improve coverage on trains. Ofcom has recently installed equipment on Network Rail’s engineering train. This will build a detailed picture of actual mobile reception across the UK’s rail network, informing our work with Government to help improve coverage.
- Working with Government. We are also helping to implement new planning lawsthat will make it easier for mobile operators to improve coverage by sharing and installing equipment, such as mobile masts.
- Extending use of signal boosters. In October we decided to allow controlled, unlicensed use of mobile phone ‘repeaters’, which amplify signals between a mobile phone and the operators’ transmitter. The changes come into effect early next year.
Steve Unger added: “People have never relied so much on their phones in daily life. As a nation, we are using 13 times more mobile data than just five years ago.
“While the industry works to improve mobile coverage, it’s vital people can get a trustworthy picture of reception across the UK. Using our tools, mobile users can see which network offers the best service in areas where they live, work and travel, before they take out a new phone contract.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
- This relates to premises which are not covered by a broadband network able to offer a download speed of at least 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of at least 1 Mbit/s. Coverage should be distinguished from take-up. Some people may live in an area with fast broadband, but choose not to purchase it. This in turn influences the average speeds people are receiving. So while coverage data accurately reflects the quality of the infrastructure available in a given area, average speed figures often do not.
- Recent announcements on full fibre. City Fibre, in partnership with Vodafone, recently announced plans to roll out full fibre to five million premises by 2025. Hyperoptic has also announced plans to provide full fibre coverage to five million premises by 2025. Gigaclear, targeting more rural areas, aims to cover 150,000 premises by 2020. KCOM has said it plans to have full fibre coverage across all of its network area by March 2019, providing coverage to 200,000 premises in the Hull area. Openreach has an ambition to roll out full fibre services to two million premises by the end of 2020, and has indicated it may be possible to extend this to 10 million premises by the mid-2020s. And Virgin Media is extending its ultrafast broadband network to an additional four million premises, of which two million are expected to be full fibre.
- Our measures define coverage as the local mobile reception being strong enough to allow:
- Nearly all 90 second voice calls to be completed without interruption; and
- Speeds for nearly all data connections to be fast enough for users to browse the internet and watch mobile video effectively.
- EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.
- The Connected Nations report draws on data from May/June 2017.
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