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Just 10% of UK homes and businesses have access to full-fibre broadband

Ofcom research reveals that for the highest-speed broadband connections, the UK is still in the slow lane, with only three million homes and businesses having access to fibre

Just as the new UK government was outlining plans to accelerate access to full-fibre broadband connections to 96% of the UK’s homes and businesses, research from regulator Ofcom has revealed that the figure currently stands at just 10%.

According to Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2019 survey, this represents three million homes and businesses that are able to obtain connections that can deliver download speeds of up to 1Gbps. But although this figure is low, it is actually 1.5 million more premises than at the same time last year.

Also, the number of homes with access to superfast (at least 30Mbps) broadband has increased by more than 500,000 since last year, although the pace of roll-out has slowed from a few years ago as the overall superfast coverage is now around 95%. In areas where at least superfast broadband is available, more than half (57%) of those properties use superfast or ultrafast – defined as having speeds of at least 300Mbps.

The research also noted that deployment of wireless home broadband from BT/EE on its mobile network further reduces the number of premises that cannot get a decent broadband service. Ofcom now estimates that as few as 155,000 homes should be unable to access what it defines as a “decent” fixed broadband service, subject to confirmation of individual premises coverage. From March 2020, homes that are unable to get a decent connection will be able to request one from BT.

As regards mobile coverage, Ofcom noted that 5G services from the four mobile network operators holding such licences over the past year are now operating in more than 40 towns and cities across the UK. 4G coverage remained largely unchanged during 2019. Individual operator coverage of the UK landmass varies, with the highest (EE) being 84% and the lowest (O2) 76%.

Contrary to what many in rural areas of the UK would say – the issue is hugely contentious among businesses and consumers alike – Ofcom claimed that 91% of the UK currently has access to what it called “good” 4G outdoor mobile coverage from at least one of the operators, and 66% of the UK has coverage from all four operators.

Regarding the 9% of the UK that did not have good outdoor 4G coverage from any operator, mainly in rural areas, Ofcom insisted that the proposed Shared Rural Network programme being negotiated between the operators and the government, with support from Ofcom, will aim to extend coverage for all operators well beyond 66%.

It also conceded that even though, in its opinion, four-fifths of homes and businesses should be able to get good 4G indoor coverage from all operators, the one in five premises unable to do so was too high.  Ofcom also estimated that 53,000 UK premises still cannot access either a decent fixed broadband service or get good 4G coverage indoors from any operator.

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The report has already provoked strong reactions, mostly along the lines that the nation could be doing a lot better in gaining access to the highest-speed connections.

A spokesperson for Openreach, charged with rolling out full fibre across the UK, told Computer Weekly: “This week, we made full-fibre broadband available to our two-millionth home, meaning we’re still on track to reach four million front doors by the end of March 2021. At the same time, there are still more than 14 million homes and businesses in the UK that could order a better service over our network today, but haven’t yet upgraded.

“That means they could be missing out on better connections that would allow them to work from home, stream entertainment and manage their smart home devices without any interruptions.”

Evan Wienburg, CEO of full-fibre infrastructure provider and ISP Truespeed, said the Connected Nations 2019 report painted a sobering picture, indicating that there was a greater-than-ever gulf between the digital haves and have-nots. “While it’s encouraging to see that full-fibre broadband coverage has risen four percentage points over the past 12 months to 10% of UK premises, it is clear that, as a nation, we are not moving fast enough to cement our digital economy’s future.

“There needs to be a greater focus on accelerating full-fibre network builds to ensure UK plc has the digital infrastructure it needs to compete effectively on the world stage.”

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