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Ofcom comms survey shows changing nature of UK network use

Brits are spending more time online than ever before, according to Ofcom’s annual Communications Market Report

British consumers are spending more time on the internet than ever before, so much so that many are actively seeking a so-called “digital detox” from their online lives, according to communications market regulator Ofcom.

In its latest Communications Market Report – an annual survey of British communications and media usage and attitudes – Ofcom reported that 15 million people in the UK have sought time offline to do other things, such as spending time with friends and family, or holidaymaking.

Most of these people found taking a break from the digital world to be a rewarding experience, although some respondents to Ofcom’s survey reported feeling lost and cut-off, or worried that they were missing out.

“The internet has revolutionised our lives for the better, but our love affair with the web is not always plain surfing,” said Ofcom director of market intelligence, Jane Rumble. “Millions of us are taking a fresh look at the role of technology in our lives and going on a digital detox to get a better tech-life balance.”

The 2016 report highlighted the importance of connectivity to the increasingly digitised world. According to Ofcom, 9.2 million broadband connections are now superfast – in the regulator’s view this means capable of delivering speeds of over 30Mbp. This was up from 7.1 million two years ago.

As a result of this growth in superfast connections, total telecoms revenues grew for the first time since 2011, up 0.5% to £37.5bn between 2014 and 2015, as average household spend increased due to the higher costs associated with most superfast packages.

Superfast connections

Rumble said the regulator estimated that nine in 10 premises now had access to a superfast broadband connection, up from 83% last year, which tallies with other assessments of availability.

“We are aiming for 95% by the end of 2017, so availability is growing,” she said. “I think the core questions are now related to those people who aren’t able to get superfast broadband and that is absolutely a priority for Ofcom.”

Rumble also reaffirmed Ofcom’s commitment to the 10Mbps universal service obligation, currently on its way to becoming law. She said the regulator considered a 10Mbps connection adequate for activities such as streaming video on demand (VoD), an activity that has seen a boom in popularity in the UK in the past 12 months at the expense of live television.

Ofcom will release more concrete statistics on broadband take-up in September 2016.

4G popularity still soaring

Meanwhile, 4G connections accounted for 46% of all mobile connections, up from 28% in 2014. Ofcom said 98% of UK premises were now covered by at least one 4G network, and 71% were covered by all four.

Data use is also soaring, with 89% of 16 to 24-year-olds and 25 to 34-year-olds, 77% of 35 to 54-year-olds, 50% of 55 to 64-year-olds, and 21% of over-65s using web and data services on their devices.

The report said 71% of UK adults now owned a smartphone, up from 66% this time last year, which remains the most popular device for getting online.

Ofcom said the popularity of smartphones was giving rise to a number of new social impacts, such as an increase in people bumping into each other on the street because they were absorbed in their phone, and 40% of respondents said they had been “smart-snubbed” by a friend or relative.

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The report also revealed a surge in the use of instant messaging, with the proportion of adults using over-the-top services such as WhatsApp at least once a week rising from 28% in 2014 to 43% in 2016, higher among the so-called millennial age group. Photo messaging services such as Snapchat are now used by 21% of adults weekly, up from 14% in 2014.

This growth came largely at the expense of email and, notably, text messaging, which, as previously reported by Computer Weekly, presents a revenue stream problem for mobile operators.

Rumble acknowledged this trend and said Ofcom had seen mobile revenues remain flat over the past year, which suggested operators were responding to this to some degree.

“I think with any business, as behaviours change and shift, we would expect to see different businesses adapt to those shifts in behaviour,” she said.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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