Superfast broadband bypassing deprived urban areas, says Ofcom

Ofcom report reveals that deprived communities in Britain’s inner cities are suffering from the same slow broadband speeds found in rural areas

A new Ofcom report has found that parts of many cities in the UK are missing out on superfast broadband and suggested some operators may be seeking to maximise their revenue by targeting wealthier areas.

With much attention paid to the state of rural broadband projects and the difficulties associated with reaching extreme rural locations, Ofcom set out to research superfast coverage and take-up in 11 urban areas, and found that, while all areas were well-served as a general rule, parts of many cities were still attaining speeds of 2Mb and below.

While availability of next-generation broadband services from BT and Virgin Media were generally extremely high – and found to be highest in Derry/Londonderry – the report paid particular attention to deprived wards in six cities – Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, London and Manchester – and found that in the majority of cases, a clear correlation between areas of greatest deprivation and the slowest speeds.

In all six of these cities, with the exception of Cardiff and London, Ofcom said, next-generation broadband services were more likely to be unavailable in the most income-deprived areas than the citywide average.

Particularly wide discrepancies were noted in Manchester, where sub-2Mb speeds were found in 7.1% of homes in the poorest quartile, compared to 5.5% citywide, and Belfast, where sub-2Mb speeds were found in 5.9% of the poorest homes, compared to 3.8% citywide.

Ofcom said this may be partly due to people in such locations being unable to afford superfast connections, but its survey also found that superfast broadband was often not available but also suggested that operators were rolling out next-generation solutions to higher-income areas in order to maximise their revenue potential.

The variation between cities underlines the complexity of the challenge faced by operators in encouraging take-up.

The report also remarked on a number of other factors that may be affecting roll-out in cities: legacy infrastructure constraints; dense, multiple-occupancy dwellings; and a general lack of awareness of superfast broadband in some communities.

Ofcom recommended that policy makers should take such factors into greater account when addressing barriers to deployment and take-up of superfast broadband. It also noted encouraging signs, such as BT’s announcement earlier this year of a major investment in city fibre.

A BT spokesperson commented: “This report shows that the majority of UK cities are very well served by fibre broadband as a result of BT’s significant investment. There is more to be done, however, and BT has identified a further £50m to further extend the availability of fibre across 30 cities. We will reveal which areas will benefit once detailed planning work has been completed.”

BT said Openreach did not discriminate in terms of economic status when it came to its fibre roll-out programme, saying it was up to individual ISPs to decide whether they wanted to offer services in such areas.

“Access to fast broadband is an important part of modern life, and a source of economic growth and investment across the UK,” said Ofcom’s consumer group director, Claudio Pollack.

“We know from previous research that rural areas often lack fast broadband coverage, something the government is helping to address with public funding. [But] today’s findings suggest that the usage and availability of faster broadband also varies widely between cities.”

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