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European operators still heavily reliant on copper for broadband delivery

A report commissioned for the European Commission has revealed that although access to broadband is improving across the EU, operators are still focusing their energies on sweating old copper assets

More than three-quarters of homes in the European Union (EU) are equipped to access broadband services of more than 30Mbps, but national operators are still heavily focused on upgrading their old copper delivery networks rather than investing in fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) technology, according to a European Commission report.

The research – which was compiled by IHS Markit and Point Topic – and covers all 28 EU member states alongside Iceland, Norway and Switzerland – found that at the end of June 2016, 75.9% of households could access so-called high-speed broadband, while 96% were covered by 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile networks, up from 59.1% in 2013.

In the 12 months to the end of June 2016, 12.8 million new households gained access to high-speed broadband over next generation access (NGA) networks, but very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line (VDSL) technology, which uses copper lines to bridge the last mile into people’s homes, was the key driver of NGA across Europe, with coverage growing by 7.1% to reach 48.2% of European homes during the survey period.

This would suggest that despite a growing clamour for pure FTTP services from both informed users and governments, national operators are still shying away from investing in more expensive fibre infrastructure in favour of upgrading existing copper networks with VDSL or in some cases, ultrafast G.fast technology.

“Since 2013, VDSL has been the fastest growing fixed broadband technology tracked by the study, and some countries have seen dramatic year-on-year growth in VDSL,” said Alzbeta Fellenbaum, principal analyst at IHS Markit, who managed the research project.

“For instance, VDSL coverage in Italy more than doubled during the twelve-month period to mid-2016, as coverage increased by 33.6 percentage points. Iceland, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia also witnessed double-digit growth in VDSL coverage during the twelve-month period to mid-2016,” she said.

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The report uncovered substantial differences between European countries in terms of FTTP availability – in many, such services are available on an extremely limited basis, such as Greece and Belgium, which reported virtually non-existent FTTP coverage at 0.6% and 0.4% respectively.

“This reflects the preference of operators in these countries to prioritise their deployment strategies on upgrading existing VDSL networks, rather than investing in the typically more expensive FTTP technology,” said Fellenbaum.

The UK did not perform much better, with coverage pegged at 1.8% at the end of the survey period in June 2016. However it is important to note that in the intervening 12 months shifts in government policy in the UK have pushed this higher; the most recent available statistics from Thinkbroadband.com suggest FTTP coverage has now reached 2.74%.

In spite of this, there were some strong performances from many countries, such as Portugal, where FTTP availability grew 10.7% over the 12 months to 30 June 2016, taking coverage to 86.1% of homes. This means Portugal has now overtaken previous frontrunners Latvia and Lithuania, at 85.2% and 81.4% respectively.

The report also showed that the gap in access to broadband services between rural and urban areas continued to narrow – a key priority for the EU’s digital strategy. Rural NGA coverage increased by 9.5% to June 2016, and 2.9 million rural households gained access to next-generation broadband during the study period. This meant that while 92.6% of rural households could access some form of broadband service, only 39.2% of them could benefit from NGA services.

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