Lack of clarity hinders UK gigabit broadband roll-out

UK’s ability to capitalise on solid current momentum in roll-out of next-generation gigabit broadband is at risk because too few consumers are aware of the technology and its benefits, study warns

Bolstered by a £5bn investment from the UK government, the rebooted Project Gigabit is seeing ultra-fast fibre and cable broadband proliferate around the country, but low demand for these better services could hinder the ambition for at least 85% to have access to gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, says a report from the Gigabit Take-up Advisory Group (GigaTAG).

GigaTAG – assembled by Which?, the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses at the request of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – aims to ensure that UK consumers and businesses are ready to take advantage of gigabit-capable broadband connections as they become available.

The research was based on a survey of 2,114 UK adults conducted by Yonder on behalf of the Which? organisation between 12 and 14 March 2021. Of the respondents, 1,913 were solely or jointly responsible for decisions about their household broadband and completed the survey.

In January 2011, the Connected nations update: spring 2021 edition report released by Ofcom showed that the availability of broadband capable of delivering gigabit speeds for domestic households continued to improve rapidly, with nearly 11 million (37%) UK homes able to access such services by the end of January 2021, up from 7.9 million (27%) in September 2020.

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

However, the GigaTAG report highlighted the worrying fact that even though there has been a slew of adverts from broadband providers extolling the merits of their fastest services, almost three-fifths (59%) of consumers were not aware of gigabit-capable broadband, and one-third (33%) of small and micro businesses had not heard of gigabit-capable broadband.

The report identified affordability as a key barrier to the adoption of gigabit-capable broadband for low-income households, revealing that just over two-fifths (44%) of those in a low-income household cited it as an issue. Other barriers identified in the report were the low willingness among consumers to pay more, with only about one in five (21%) people willing to pay more for gigabit-capable broadband, and a lack of understanding of the benefits, with two in five (41%) unclear about how it differs from their current package.

In a call to action, GigaTAG called on Ofcom and the broadband industry to work together on clear and common terminology to cut through advertising jargon and describe gigabit broadband and its benefits in straightforward terms. 

It also put forward a number of recommendations, such as enlisting the help of local authorities to raise awareness and promote the benefits of upgrading to gigabit broadband at a local level. It said that at the right time, the government should also undertake its own nationwide awareness-raising – leading a coalition of stakeholders to work together on a national campaign.

In addition to ongoing work to introduce voluntary social tariffs, GigaTAG advised the government to conduct an evidence-based assessment of the existing and potential measures to support low-income households and address the UK’s digital divide in broadband connectivity.

GigaTAG also said further consideration should be given to an employer-led scheme to support the uptake of gigabit broadband by offering employee discounts, similar to the gym membership discount schemes offered by many businesses. This, it said, would also help businesses to support remote working, which has boomed during the pandemic

GigaTAG believes this package of measures, along with other recommendations outlined in the report, will help motivate consumers and businesses to switch to gigabit-capable broadband networks, enabling them to take advantage of the benefits of these connections and support the government’s ambition to roll out these faster services across the UK.

“Digital connectivity has never been more important, with the pandemic highlighting how dependent consumers are on a good broadband connection for daily activities such as remote working, access to services and keeping in touch with family and friends,” said Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at Which? and chair of GigaTAG.

“Demand for faster, more reliable broadband services is crucial to the success of the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband, and to ensure the benefits of these connections are realised. Better information about the benefits, measures to improve the language used to describe these services, along with possible targeted voucher and discount schemes, will help to address the barriers preventing consumers from benefiting from better connections.”

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