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UK full-fibre forges ahead but broadband digital divide persists

Comms regulator’s survey finds full-fibre networks are being built at a record rate, but work is still needed to get decent broadband to remote parts of the country

After massive investment this year by the likes of BT and Virgin Media, and with the altnet sector in full swing, the UK’s gigabit broadband industry has gone from strength to strength, reaching nearly 40% of UK homes. But, as highlighted in research from Ofcom, a stubborn digital divide persists.

In the second interim update to its December 2020 annual Connected Nations report, the regulator measured the speeds and performance of broadband services at more than 2,500 households, assessing  mobile coverage and fixed broadband availability across the UK as of May 2021.

The study found that just under seven million (24%) UK homes can take up full-fibre internet packages, up from 21% at the start of the year. It also found that nearly 12 million (40%) of UK homes can now get gigabit-capable broadband, which is capable of delivering download speeds of up to 1Gbps, up from 37% in January. This includes full-fibre, delivered by Openreach and the rapidly growing altnets, and the fastest cable internet packages such as those from Virgin Media O2. 

In addition, 96% of UK homes can now obtain superfast broadband – defined as download speeds of at least 30Mbps – while almost all UK homes have access to a “decent” connection, that is 10Mbps download and 1Mbit/s upload. This, said Ofcom, was enough to browse the internet, stream TV shows or make video calls.

Take-up of the faster packages was reflected in the higher average speeds received by households. The median average broadband speed recorded in Ofcom’s research was 50.4Mbps – up 20% on the average speed of 42.1Mbps in November 2019. Of the packages the regulator measured, Virgin Media’s 516Mbps service provided the fastest median average download speed (490.3Mbps), while BT’s 300Mbps full-fibre package had the highest median upload speed (50.6Mbps).

Ofcom noted that the need for faster speeds during the coronavirus pandemic has driven many UK households to upgrade their package. It revealed that 85% of those have taken up superfast packages, up from 75% in November 2019 – before the pandemic led to mass home working and learning. This meant that more than two million households have been upgraded to packages with advertised speeds of at least superfast level.

As for mobile, the study found coverage has remained largely unchanged since January, with 4G available to 92% of the UK from at least one mobile operator. Ofcom noted that work was under way to improve coverage across the UK – particularly in rural areas – through the Shared Rural Network, which was agreed between the mobile industry and the UK government in 2020.

The study also observed how the pandemic has led to a continued shift in how people use their mobiles. Those using Android handsets spent nearly three-quarters of their time online connected to Wi-Fi, rather than their mobile network – reflecting more time spent at home. Also, more areas of the UK are getting connected to 5G. In 2020, two-thirds of all 5G connections recorded in Ofcom’s research were in London, but that has now fallen to 45%, with mobile operators rolling out coverage to wider areas.

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Yet despite the encouraging signs in terms of roll-out of full-fibre and the higher-rated packages, the Connected Nations report also found that about 134,000 UK properties are still unable to get a decent connection, fuelling fear of a continuation of the digital divide. Ofcom said these properties could be eligible for an upgrade under the broadband universal service.

“Over two million households have upgraded their internet package since the pandemic began, and broadband firms are rushing to meet the UK’s need for speed,” said Yih-Choung Teh, group director, strategy and research, at Ofcom. “With full-fibre networks being built at a record rate, the UK’s networks are being made fit for the future. But our figures show work is still needed to get decent broadband to remote parts of the UK.”

Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at, commented: “With millions of Britons spending much of the year working from home, many have come to realise how important it is to have a fast, reliable broadband connection. The number of people with superfast broadband is now 10 percentage points higher than pre-pandemic levels, with 12 million homes able to access gigabit speeds.

“But Ofcom’s figures also reveal the darker side of the digital divide, with 134,000 households without a decent 10Mbps connection. Large-scale investments by broadband networks to upgrade Britain’s infrastructure are starting to pay off, but it is critical that households in more rural areas are not left behind.”

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