More than a third of UK homes have gigabit-capable broadband

First interim update to UK regulator’s audit of mobile coverage and fixed broadband availability finds gigabit industry defies pandemic to continue aggressive infrastructure deployment

In January 2021, with the UK continuing to deal with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak with a third national lockdown, the UK’s broadband infrastructure companies continued apace with the rapid roll-out of gigabit networks, according to data released by Ofcom.

The key finding in the UK telecoms regulator’s Connected nations update: spring 2021 edition report was that the availability of broadband capable of delivering Gigabit speeds for domestic households continued to rapidly improve, with nearly 11 million (37%) UK homes now able to access such services by the end of January 2021, up from 7.9 million (27%) homes in September 2020.

Ofcom attributed the increase largely to the continued roll-out of Virgin Media’s DOCSIS3.1 technology to an additional 2.8 million homes, along with companies extending their full-fibre networks.

It calculated that national full-fibre coverage now stood at just under six million (21%) UK homes, up from 5.1 million (18%) as noted in its report ending in September 2020.

The growth in this sector was said to have been driven predominantly through deployments by the larger fibre infrastructure operators, but was also supported by an increasing number of smaller providers across the UK serving individual communities and regions, with the UK’s altnet community – from firms such as Community Fibre and toob – flourishing during this period.

Availability of ultrafast broadband – homes receiving broadband download speeds of at least 300 Mbps – increased across the UK by nearly half a million homes to 17.7 million (61%) homes.

This was largely driven by extensions to Virgin Media’s cable network, as well as fibre deployments by Openreach and other full-fibre operators.

Ofcom observed that in some predominantly urban zones, new fibre networks had being deployed in areas that have existing ultrafast coverage, and so the increases in full-fibre availability did not necessarily result in a corresponding increase of ultrafast coverage. An additional 65,000 properties took superfast broadband download speeds of at least 30 Mbps since the previous Ofcom report, with coverage remaining at 96% of homes.

Yet one of the key area of contention regarding UK broadband has been bridging the nation’s digital divide. Ofcom found that the number of properties – both residential and commercial – that could not receive a decent broadband service (10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed from a fixed line) stood at 650,000, just over just over 2%, in January 2021.

This number changed due to a difference in the way Ofcom measured broadband availability at sites with multiple properties, such as blocks of flats and shopping centres.

Ofcom also expects that the growing availability of fixed wireless access (FWA) will further reduce the number of premises unable to get a decent broadband connection. It estimated that the number of properties unable to get decent broadband, even with the inclusion of FWA networks, was around 189,000.

As regards to wireless networks, Ofcom found that the level of 4G mobile networks across the UK has not seen significant changes over recent reporting periods. More than 91% of the UK landmass was found to have what “good” 4G coverage from at least one operator, and this area included nearly all of the premises in the UK.

Both geographic and road 4G not-spots – areas where good 4G services are not available from any mobile operator – remained at the same levels as in September 2020, at 9% and 4% respectively. However, individual nations varied significantly, particularly in Scotland and Wales. Ofcom also noted that it was too early to make an assessment of 5G roll out.

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