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Broadband divide persists across the UK, says Which?

Latest statistics from Which? show the UK’s broadband divide persists, with many areas still missing out on high-speed services despite industry tub-thumping

Residents of the leafy commuter-belt suburb of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire have the fastest average broadband speed in the UK, at 32.5Mbps

Yet vast swathes of the UK, including major urban areas and outlying rural districts alike, struggle to achieve a third of that, according to new figures from consumer advocacy group Which?.

The local authority-level data – which was produced using the organisation’s proprietary broadband speed checker – showed how, in spite of the long-awaited industry-led pivot to full-fibre broadband that has taken place in the past 12 months, huge numbers of people are still unable to fully participate in the UK’s digitised society thanks to sub-standard broadband connections.

Though Britain’s full-fibre roll-out has garnered billions of pounds worth of investment and hundreds of column inches in the media, it has focused on those areas where services are commercially attractive and profitable, to wit, towns and cities and multiple-occupancy dwellings. With a few notable exceptions, rural areas are again being bypassed, just as in previous roll-outs.

In October 2018, the Broadband World Forum released a study that claimed the new-found enthusiasm for full-fibre broadband in Europe – not just the UK – was driven not by consumer demand for it, or by benevolence on the industry’s part, but rather by network owners’ fear of missing out on the price premium that full-fibre services command.

“Having a good broadband connection is a basic requirement for many important everyday tasks, so it is unacceptable that millions of people around the country are still struggling to get what they need,” said Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services at Which?.

“The government and the regulator must press ahead with plans to provide a bare minimum connection speed of 10Mbps in every household and make sure that no one is at a disadvantage because of where they live.”

“The government and the regulator must press ahead with plans to provide a bare minimum connection speed of 10Mbps in every household and make sure that no one is at a disadvantage because of where they live”
Alex Neill, Which?

Predictably, the remotest parts of the country endured the slowest average service speeds, with average speeds in Orkney barely moving the needle at 3Mbps, rising to 5.7Mbps in Allerdale in Cumbria, 6.7Mbps in the Shetlands, 7Mbps in Argyll and Bute, 7.1Mbps in Moray, 7.4Mbps in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland, and 7.5Mbps in Ceredigion, North Wales.

At such speeds – which fall below those that will be provided by the government’s promised Universal Service Obligation (USO) of 10Mbps – it would take around 25 minutes to download a movie, compared with three to four minutes for those with the fastest services.

Many urban areas did not fare much better, including the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Westminster at 10.1Mbps and 10.8Mbps, Calderdale in West Yorkshire at 12.1Mbps, Bromsgrove in the Midlands at 12.6Mbps, and West Lancashire near Liverpool at 13.1Mbps.

At the other end of the scale, average broadband speeds hit 32.3Mbps in Crawley, West Sussex, 29.6Mbps in West Dunbartonshire near Glasgow, 29.5Mbps in Watford, 27.6Mbps in Nottingham, and 27.3Mbps in Cambridge.

Which? said previous research had shown that many people with sluggish broadband connections could boost their speeds immediately simply by switching service providers, although historically a good number of people are hesitant to do so. Indeed, 2017 research from broadband comparison website Cable.co.uk found many people would prefer to end their relationship with their husband or wife than their internet service provider (ISP).

Matt Powell of comparison site Broadband Genie said that while access to a decent connection in rural areas was a serious problem, the overall broadband landscape was looking better than ever, with only 2% of total UK properties lacking access to a 10Mbps service.

Regarding the much-hyped USO, which is due to be implemented over the coming months, Powell said although it should help those in that remaining 2%, the cost threshold of £3,400 per property would be a barrier to some who were not willing to pay for additional expenses over that limit.

“In 2016, Ofcom estimated that a £3,400 threshold for a USO of 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload would leave 60,000 premises unserved,” he said.

“The data used by Which? appears to be gathered from customer speed tests and therefore may not be fully representative of speeds available”
Andrew Glover, Internet Service Providers’ Association

“Some communities will be able to work around this by combining their funding for a connection which serves multiple properties, but others may have to pay a significant sum out of their own pockets, or explore alternatives such as satellite broadband.”

Andrew Glover, chair of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), which represents the interests of broadband suppliers, disputed the accuracy of the Which? statistics, and said the UK’s true average speed was much higher.

“ISPs have made significant progress in boosting broadband speeds in recent years, as Ofcom’s official figures show that across the UK, average download speeds have increased by 28% over the past year to 46.2Mbps.

“The data used by Which? appears to be gathered from customer speed tests and therefore may not be fully representative of speeds available. Ofcom’s Boost Your Broadband campaign can show where faster connections are already available should customers want them, including some of the areas mentioned in the report.”

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