21% of UK households—a total of six million—are now connected to a full-fibre network, as the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband technologies gathers steam.
Ofcom’s latest report on broadband and mobile coverage reveals broadband networks have made significant progress in extending their reach since the autumn, despite the upheaval of the coronavirus crisis, but that mobile coverage has stalled.
Full fibre (FTTP) coverage has climbed from 18% in September 2020 to 21% in January. Gigabit broadband coverage, which includes both full fibre and Virgin Media’s updated cable network, soared from 27% to 37%, with 10.8 million households connected.
Openreach and alternative networks like Hyperoptic and CityFibre have been building full-fibre networks at pace throughout the winter. Openreach achieved its goal of reaching 4.5 million premises by the end of March 2021, achieving a build rate of 42,000 connections a week. At that pace, it will cover 5.8 properties by September.
Openreach parent the BT Group is expected to today announce a further ramping up of the rollout. The doubling down is expected to come in response to regulatory decisions made in Ofcom’s recent market review, the inclusion in the Chancellor’s 2021 budget of a “super deduction” tax policy for businesses that invest in new plant and machinery assets, and the deployment of faster trenching machines.
Openreach’s current goal is to reach 20 million premises, 3.2 million of them in rural or semi-rural areas, by the mid to late 2020s. Thursday’s announcement could extend this target or bring forward the deadline.
But despite the rapid pace of full-fibre builds, much of the progress in gigabit coverage has been achieved by Virgin Media, which has been rolling out a software update that boasts top speeds on its cable network to 1104Mbps. Between September and this spring, Virgin Media flipped the switch on the upgrade in London, Northern Ireland, and South Wales, making its Gig1 Fibre tariffs available to an additional three million households.
Virgin hopes to reach its entire footprint of 15 premises with the update by the end of the year. When that is completed and paired with full-fibre builds, the UK’s gigabit broadband coverage will stand at 60%.
However, the UK is still expected to fall short of Boris Johnson’s target of delivering gigabit-capable connections to 85% of premises by 2025. That target has already repeatedly been watered down from his initial pledge, during the Tory Party leadership contest in the summer of 2019, to achieve universal full-fibre coverage by 2025.
The government intends to spend £5 billion of public money to extend gigabit connections to the final 20% of hardest to reach premises, most of them rural. But a January report from Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee concluded cautioned that these households may still receive short shrift.
“We are increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late,” the report stated. “We remain unconvinced that if and when rural users finally do get gigabit broadband they will enjoy the same choice of service provider and the same protections as their urban counterparts.”
Ofcom’s spring update also revealed that the availability of ultrafast broadband—with speeds of 300Mbps+—has increased modestly from the autumn, from 59% to 61%. Meanwhile, the availability of superfast (30Mbps+) broadband remains unchanged at 96%.
Additionally, 650,000 properties, both commercial and rural, remain unable to access “decent” fixed-line broadband, defined as that delivering speeds of more than 10Mbps. This is despite the March 2020 launch of the new broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO), entitling households to broadband connections with minimum speeds of 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream. The USO gives households a legal right to request a 10+Mbps connection from a supporting ISP. However, it can take months for the service to be installed and households have to foot the bill above £3,400.
Finally, mobile coverage has largely flatlined. Outdoor 4G coverage from any of the operators held steady at 98%, while geographic 4G coverage is unchanged at 69%. The Shared Rural Network, through which mobile operators will invest in shared masts in rural areas, will eventually deliver 95% geographic coverage from 4G by 2025 but hasn’t made much of an impact yet.
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