Broadband coverage improved through 2018, says Ofcom

Ofcom’s annual Connected Nations report reveals that the number of people who cannot receive a 10Mbps broadband connection has halved

Broadband coverage across the UK continues to improve, with the number of homes and small businesses that cannot receive a “decent” connection – defined as offering 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds – halving over the past 12 months, according to Ofcom.

In the telecoms regulator’s annual pre-Christmas Connected Nations report, which has just been released, it reported that even though the number of digitally excluded homes and businesses was dropping, this still left 677,000 without decent broadband, mostly in rural areas, something it hopes to address with the incoming Universal Service Obligation (USO).

Superfast broadband, which Ofcom defines as a service capable of delivering at least 30Mbps, can now be accessed by 94% of premises, up from 91% this time last year. Ultrafast broadband, generally held to be a service capable of delivering over 100Mbps, is now available to 50% of premises, up from 36% a year ago, largely due to Virgin Media’s ongoing network upgrade.

The true gold standard of full-fibre, or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband – services that can deliver speeds of up to and beyond 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) – is also more widely available than ever before, with about 1.8 million premises now able to access such a service, up by a million since December 2017. This can be attributed largely to two major roll-outs, one spearheaded by Openreach, the other a joint venture between CityFibre and Vodafone, along with other projects such as Hyperoptic’s.

Kim Mears, managing director for strategic infrastructure development at Openreach, said: “This year, we have spent millions of pounds delivering upgrades to thousands more homes in the most challenging parts of the UK. We are doing that through a combination of commercial investment, subsidised partnerships and community schemes, and we are using innovative techniques like drones to connect people who were previously unreachable.

“It’s good to see that work is having an effect, with 98% of the country now able to order a ‘decent’ fixed broadband service and the vast majority able to order superfast. But there is clearly more to do. We are keen to continue working with the government, Ofcom and the wider industry to get those few remaining not-spots upgraded and, with our Fibre First approach, we are prioritising the deployment of future-proof FTTP technology throughout the UK.”

Mobile coverage across the UK also improved during 2018, Ofcom reported, with almost all premises now able to get a good indoor 4G signal from at least one of the big four mobile operators (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone), and 77% covered by all four, up from 65% this time last year.

Geographically, 78% of the UK’s total landmass now has complete call coverage from all four operators, and 91% from at least one, while 66% of the country can access complete 4G coverage, up from 49% last year.

But Ofcom added: “Too many rural areas are left with patchy or unreliable mobile reception. For example, while 83% of urban homes and offices have complete 4G coverage, the figure for rural premises is less than half that (41%). In some remote parts of the country, there is no coverage at all.”

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In the light of this, Ofcom is pressing ahead with plans to incentivise faster progress in rolling out mobile internet, and today it also set out plans to auction two new tranches of mobile spectrum in support of rural and urban coverage for 5G networks.

Elsewhere in the Connected Nations report, Ofcom examined the resilience and security of the UK’s network infrastructure, two increasingly important factors as daily life becomes ever more reliant on connectivity, and as cyber threats – including potential threats from nation-state actors, not just cyber criminals – increase.

It found that most network outages in the past 12 months were short-lived interruptions to traditional landline services, but there were some high-profile events of concern, notably O2’s 6 December outage, which disrupted services to millions for almost 24 hours.

In response, Ofcom has announced three areas where it plans to work with industry to avert future outages of this nature, and where they do occur, to reduce their scale and impact.

“First, we are collecting targeted information from industry on network design, to identify elements which are paramount to ensuring availability,” said the regulator. “We will propose systematic, preventive checks that companies should apply to hardware, software and their internal processes to improve network availability and resilience.

“Second, we will propose a code of best practice to reduce the time required to reconnect subscribers after large-scale network outages.

“Third, we are examining how network companies that provide widespread, wholesale services – for example, to mobile ‘virtual network operators’ – might add extra protections for these customers.”

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