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Over one million homes and businesses still lack ‘decent’ broadband despite narrowing digital divide

More than a million homes and businesses still cannot access a broadband connection capable of delivering a service of 10Mbps or higher, says Ofcom

Broadband coverage around the UK has steadily improved over the course of 2017, yet more than a million homes and businesses still lack a “decent” broadband connection capable of offering a download speed of at least 10Mbps, according to Ofcom’s annual Connected Nations report.

The telecoms regulator said it was concerned that about 1.1 million residential and commercial premises – 4% of all properties in the UK – could not access a 10Mbps service, which it currently defines as the minimum necessary to enjoy all that a fast broadband connection can offer, such as high-definition video streaming.

According to Ofcom’s statistics, this figure has fallen from 1.6 million premises last year, and once again the divide between urban and rural areas of Britain was stark, with 17% of rural properties lacking a decent service, versus just 2% in towns and cities.

“Broadband coverage is improving, but our findings show there is still urgent work required before people and businesses get the services they need,” said Ofcom CTO Steve Unger.

“Everyone should have good access to the internet, wherever they live and work. So we are supporting plans for universal broadband, and promoting investment in full-fibre technology that can provide ultrafast, reliable connections.”

Ofcom reiterated its support for the government’s plans – currently being worked on – to give everybody in the UK the right to request a 10Mbps service, with an upload speed of at least 1Mbps.

This so-called universal service obligation (USO) was written into the Digital Economy Act in June 2017. Peers in the House of Lords had argued for a 30Mbps USO, which would meet the government’s definition of superfast broadband, but were overridden by digital minister Matt Hancock in the pre-election wash-up period.

Since then, BT has made a firm offer to supply USO connections through the quasi-independent Openreach network delivery business, but other ISPs have criticised this because if a voluntary offer was accepted, the USO would not be legally binding, and possibly would constitute illegal state aid for BT.

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The Connected Nations report also highlighted some of the progress being made in delivery of superfast broadband services of over 30Mbps, and ultrafast broadband services of over 100Mbps – which includes gold standard fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections.

Ofcom said superfast services were now available to 91% of premises (27 million) by May 2017, up from 89% (25.5 million) a year earlier. However, it added, such services are being bought by fewer than four in 10 consumers, although this figure is also up on previous years.

Despite new commitments from government and broadband network builders such as Openreach, progress on rolling out FTTP broadband was slow this year, with such services available to only 3% of premises, up from 2% in 2016. Ofcom expects this figure to grow as more network builds come to fruition in the next few years, and it is likely to ramp up quickly.

The report also contained updated data on mobile network coverage, which showed that nearly 60% of premises can receive an indoor 4G signal from all four networks, up from 40% last year. However, total geographic 4G coverage is available across just 43% of the UK’s land area, and 30% of the country cannot receive a signal from all four operators. Again, this problem was particularly acute in remote rural areas.

Unger added: “With all the technological advancements we’ve seen in recent years, people shouldn’t have to second-guess where they can and can’t get decent mobile reception. The public and our economy depend on mobile coverage that allows people to call, text or get online wherever they are. So we need to see mobile companies step up and prioritise improving coverage across the UK.”

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