5G, fibre flourish in UK in 2021

Full-fibre broadband is now available to more than eight million homes as roll-out accelerates and ‘decent’ broadband is at highest-ever level

As 2021 saw an attempt to return to normal life in what was considered the post-Covid environment, the UK’s appetite for high-speed wired and wireless communications has been revealed in research from UK regulator Ofcom, which shows full-fibre taken up by an additional three million homes and mobile data consumption increasing by 37% in the past year. 

According to Ofcom’s annual Connected Nations report on the availability of broadband and mobile services across the UK, more than eight million homes (28%) can now get full-fibre broadband, a figure that the supply community regards as a significant milestone. With many people across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still currently working from home, and more set to do so following the spread of the Omicron Covid variant, it was timely for Ofcom to note that the roll-out of future-proof, full-fibre technology was accelerating at its fastest-ever rate. Average monthly data use grew to 453GB per connection – more than treble the level of five years ago (132GB).

Although the study showed that in 2021, 750,000 homes upgraded to faster, more reliable full-fibre services, taking the number of properties connected to nearly two million, Ofcom warned that these homes still represent less than a quarter (24%) of those to which full-fibre upgrades are available. It said that with 7.4 million broadband customers out of contract and likely to be paying higher prices for slower speeds, many households could upgrade to a discounted full-fibre package without paying more than they do now.

Another concerning trend highlighted in the report was that the digital divide still exists in the UK broadband arena. In May 2021, Ofcom found that despite the encouraging signs in terms of roll-out of full-fibre and the higher-rated packages, about 134,000 UK properties were unable to get a decent connection – defined as offering download speeds of 10Mbit/s and upload speeds of 1Mbit/s – fuelling fears of a continuation of the digital divide. The study saw this figure falling to about 123,000 homes – 0.4% of the UK – that still do not have access to a “decent” broadband connection.

Ofcom said these properties could be eligible for an upgrade under the broadband universal service, stressing that the UK government and governments in each of the UK nations continue to deliver projects aimed at making sure people in the hardest-to-reach areas can get the connections they need. It calculated that since the broadband universal service was launched in March 2020, orders have been placed that will result in about 6,500 households being connected to full-fibre broadband, and thousands more are expected to benefit from this scheme and others.

In the wireless domain, the report said the roll-out of 5G mobile continued to make swift progress, and for the first time, Ofcom has published 5G coverage data. It estimated that about half of UK properties are in areas where 5G is available outside from at least one mobile network operator. Take-up of 5G-enabled handsets has increased substantially, from just 800,000 last year to more than six million in 2021. But although it doubled in the past year, 5G traffic still accounts for a relatively small proportion of overall mobile data traffic at 3%, with 4G remaining the dominant technology at 91%.

Lindsey Fussell, network and communications group director at Ofcom, said: “Many families now have multiple devices on the go at the same time for work, learning and entertainment – and the festive holidays can see a particular battle for bandwidth. Full-fibre is helping meet those demands, with millions more benefiting from faster speeds and more reliable connections. But some homes in hard-to-reach areas still struggle to get decent broadband, so there is more work to do to make sure these communities get the connections they need.”

BT broadband provision division Openreach delivered more than three-quarters of the additional three million full-fibre homes, but Mark Shurmer, managing director of regulatory affairs, said that although over eight million homes now have access to full-fibre, there was much more to do.

“We are fully focused on accelerating our own high-quality build to four million per year, bringing the country’s most reliable broadband technology to 25 million premises and across urban and rural areas in equal measure,” he said. “However, there remain around 12 million homes and businesses that could order a better broadband service over our network today.”

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