UK superfast, ultrafast broadband deployments track upwards rapidly in Q4 2021

Majors and altnets hit the accelerator in gigabit connectivity roll-out in the UK, but survey reveals big discrepancy between the country’s best and worst fibre-enabled locations

UK gigabit connectivity is on a roll with mass roll-out, and research by analyst Point Topic has revealed just how quickly the country adopted full-fibre and Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) options in the fourth quarter of 2021, from major suppliers and altnets alike.

The analysis is based on the company’s broadband availability dataset, which includes 1.7 million UK postcodes and checks postcode-level broadband availability updates by internet service provider (ISP) and technology.

The top-line figures were that by the end of 2021, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) – cited by the UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee as a key driving force in the UK government approaching its roll-out targets – completed its DOCSIS 3.1-based gigabit broadband roll-out to 15.5 million homes, which covers its entire footprint, while BT broadband provision division Openreach added nearly 700,00 fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) sites in the fourth quarter to reach 5.8 million.

In addition, the analyst calculated that at the end of 2021, almost three million UK premises were passed by independent fibre networks, nine local authorities had overlapping networks from three independent fibre network operators, while 79 local authorities had two independent fibre networks intersecting.

Kingston upon Hull, Belfast and Milton Keynes were revealed as the top fibre cities in the UK, with overall FTTP coverage of 99%, 88% and 87% respectively. In almost half of all local authorities (47.6%), FTTP coverage is still less than 20% of premises.

The analyst calculated that at the end of 2021, the total FTTP coverage, including Openreach, Virgin Media RFoG – where an element of the existing coaxial cable is replaced by single mode optical fibre – and independent fibre networks, was 9.1 million premises, representing 28.9% of UK premises. Virgin Media O2 passed 49.2% of UK premises with its DOCSIS 3.1-based gigabit network. The analyst stressed that FTTP and DOCSIS 3.1 networks overlapped in multiple areas.

Drilling deeper into the market analysis, Point Topic examined how deeply Openreach had continued its full-fibre roll-out and found almost 670,000 additional FTTP premises in the fourth quarter of 2021, compared with 600,000 in the third quarter, which resulted in the total FTTP footprint of 5.8 million premises. As in previous quarters, the number of Openreach ADSL, FTTC-only and Gfast premises continued to decline, with the focus shifting to FTTP deployment.

Openreach aims to cover 25 million premises with full fibre by the end of 2026, but, as was the case in previous quarters, the largest Openreach FTTP footprints were to be found in large cities and regions outside London and the South East. In some areas, Openreach’s FTTP network is complemented by independent fibre networks and/or Virgin Media’s RFoG network. Also, Hull-based KCOM has generated a significant FTTP footprint in the North East.

Yet there were huge differences between the leading and lagging locations for fibre footprint. Compared with Hull, top of the shop at 99%, only 1.4% of premises in the Leicestershire region of Oadby and Wigston were passed by FTTP, as was the case for Havant in Hampshire. Even the university city of Oxford saw just 1.7% of premises passed. In almost half of all local authorities (47.6%), FTTP coverage is still less than 20% of premises.

Adding 3.9 million gigabit premises to its footprint in the fourth quarter, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) completed its DOCSIS 3.1-based gigabit broadband roll-out to 15.5 million homes, and with just over a million RFoG premises passed, VMO2 remains the second largest FTTP network operator in the UK, after Openreach.

In terms of the percentage of premises covered by its DOCSIS 3.1 network, following its latest upgrade, Virgin’s top 20 local authority list has a broad geographical spread. Compared with the previous quarter, the map of VMO2’s DOCSIS 3.1 network coverage includes many more local authorities, with the footprint expanded in many regions.

That said, significant parts of the South West, North West, North East, Scotland and Wales are not covered. The company intends to upgrade its DOCSIS 3.1 network with XGS-PON-based symmetric speed FTTP by 2028. The operator is currently conducting a trial of the platform with 50,000 homes in Stoke, Salisbury and Wakefield.

Looking at the independents, Point Topic said the sector has been pushing forward with fibre roll-out, with CityFibre leading the way in terms of FTTP footprint. The operator has committed to rolling out FTTP to eight million premises by 2025. Hyperoptic has the second largest independent FTTP network, with 600,000 premises passed, while Community Fibre was said to be a strong third, with nearly half a million, almost twice as many homes passed as fourth placed Gigaclear.

Of the larger FTTP network operators, Community Fibre and CityFibre grew their footprints at the highest rates – 33.9% and 32.9% respectively – compared with the previous quarter. Trooli and Jurassic Fibre more than doubled their footprint, but from a small base.

Network overlap by independent fibre network operators has increased further. In the fourth quarter of 2021, nine local authorities had overlapping networks from three independent network operators, up from six in the previous quarter, though the number of premises passed remained “modest”, according to the analyst.

Across the UK, almost 120,000 premises had access to two or three independent fibre networks at the end of 2021. In total, independent FTTP networks passed 2.9 million premises, or 9.1% of all UK premises.

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