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Ofcom UK Infrastructure Study – 36% Can Get Ultrafast Broadband

Friday, December 15th, 2017 (12:46 pm) - Score 2,815
united kingdom binary blue map broadband

The Connected Nations 2017 report has today been published by Ofcom, which reveals a huge rise in the availability of fixed line 300Mbps+ “ultrafast broadband” services to 36% of the UK (up from 2% last year). Elsewhere 4% (1.1 million premises) still cannot receive speeds of 10Mbps+ (down from 6%).

The surge in “ultrafast” coverage may come as a surprise but it’s not due to the roll-out of a magical new technology. Instead the figure largely stems from Virgin Media’s decision earlier this year to boost the top speed of their existing cable network from 200Mbps to 300Mbps (350Mbps on some tiers). Virgin are also in the process of expanding their network to cover around 60-65% of UK premises by the end of 2019, which means they should remain the driving force behind this figure for a while longer.

A Quick Note About Definitions

Ultrafast Broadband

The regulator has for awhile now almost arbitrarily chosen to define “ultrafast” speeds as starting at 300Mbps (Megabits per second), although it’s worth noting that the EU, UK Government, Openreach and many others have long preferred to define this as starting at 100Mbps+.

Superfast Broadband

The regulator defines this performance level as starting at 30Mbps, which is the same as the Scottish government and EU. The most recent Broadband Delivery UK contracts have also adopted the 30Mbps+ definition, although it’s worth noting that almost all of the earlier contracts adopted the Government’s earlier definition of 24Mbps+. In the grander scheme of things 24Mbps vs 30Mbps only has a tiny impact upon coverage figures.

Meanwhile the only other “ultrafast” capable technologies in our residential fixed line market are “full fibreFTTP/H networks, which Ofcom reports as now being able to cover 3% of the UK or 840,000 homes (up from 2% last year), and Openreach’s new hybrid-fibre G.fast network that is only just getting started (i.e. too soon to impact this year’s report). G.fast will soon reach 1 million premises and should cover 20m by the end of 2020.

Similarly we’re expecting a huge surge in the coverage of Gigabit capable FTTP/H networks over the next few years as Openreach, Virgin Media, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, TrueSpeed, KCOM, B4RN, Cityfibre + Vodafone and others all plan significant deployments (here), which could expand it to around c.5-6 million premises by the end of 2020. However most of this expansion work will focus upon urban areas.

Superfast Speeds and the 10Mbps USO

The eagle-eyed among you will quickly spot that Ofcom’s statistics for fixed line “superfast broadband” coverage (91% and that’s up from 89% in 2016) are a a fair bit behind the most recent Government figure of 94%+, which is largely because their report is based on much older data from May-June 2017. Ofcom notes that their own figure would rise from 91% to 92% if they used the 24Mbps+ definition for “superfast“.

ofcom_state_of_uk_fixed_line_broadband_2017

Naturally Virgin Media’s network is a big contributor to the “superfast” figure too, although Openreach’s now matured and ‘up to’ 80Mbps capable VDSL2 based Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) service is the main driving force thanks to covering roughly 90% of all premises.

All of this has some relevance for the Government’s proposed broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO), which pledges to ensure that everybody can access a minimum download speed of 10Mbps from 2020 (here). In 2015 Ofcom reported that around 8% of the UK (2.4 million premises) were unable to receive speeds faster than 10Mbps, which fell to 6% in 2016 (1.6 million) and this year it sits at just 4% (1.1 million).

The on-going roll-out of fixed “superfast broadband” under the Government’s £1.6bn+ Broadband Delivery UK programme has of course had a significant impact on the above improvements and the expectation is that such networks could cover 98% of the UK by around 2020 (here), with the USO catering for the rest.

Steve Unger, Ofcom’s Chief Technology Officer, said:

“Broadband coverage is improving, but our findings show there’s still urgent work required before people and businesses get the services they need.

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.”

In terms of take-up, some 38% of connections are now superfast services (up from 31% last year and 27% in 2015). The growth in take-up has naturally led to an increase in average speeds across the UK. The average download speed of all active connections is now 44Mbps (up from 37Mbps in 2016), although this falls to 6Mbps (up from 4Mbps) with uploads.

A Quick Note About Average Speeds

Ofcom’s analysis of average broadband speeds is based on the information provided by ISPs regarding the “sync speed” of each active line (i.e. not actual speed tests), which is arguably more of an optimistic estimate than the real-world testing that they do in their other annual broadband speeds report (that report uses a custom router installed in several thousand homes).

In addition, the average monthly data volumes per household on fixed broadband connections have also increased over the past year, jumping from 132 GigaBytes (GB) last year to 190GB now. We should add that the total data usage per household for “superfast” connections is even higher at 231GB (up from 169GB).

Rising data consumption is one of the key reasons why so many “unlimited” ISPs hike their prices each year because it impacts the cost of service provision.

Mobile Networks

The report also examines the coverage of mobile networks, such as via the usual 2G, 3G and 4G based platforms that almost everybody should now be familiar with. The UK also has four primary network operators via O2, Three UK, EE (BT) and Vodafone, plus lots of virtual operators (MVNO) and resellers that piggyback off those.

Crucially Ofcom has new approach for defining mobile coverage in this report, which reveals that 90% of premises (indoor) in the UK should be about to make a mobile call (up from 85% last year) and this drops to 86% for data connections (up from 80% last year). However the outdoor geographic coverage of 4G networks is a pitiful 43% (up from 21% in 2016).

Most network operators are currently reaching maturity in their 4G deployments, although EE has set itself a goal for landmass coverage of 95% by the end of December 2020. Clearly they have a long way to go.

ofcom_state_of_uk_mobile_networks_2017

It’s worth highlighting that geographic 4G coverage in the UK’s rural areas is even worse. While people inside 90% of UK premises can now make telephone calls on all four mobile networks, this falls to just 57% in rural areas. Likewise people can make outdoor calls from 70% of the geographic area of the UK, but only 40% of the geographic area of Scotland.

Meanwhile the growing coverage and rising take-up of 4G is also driving greater volumes of data downloads and uploads. The average volume of data consumed per subscriber is now 1.9GB per month, up from 1.3GB in 2016 and 0.9GB in 2015.

Otherwise you can find a full stats summary of the UK position below.

Ofcom’s 2017 Connected Nations Report
https://www.ofcom.org.uk/../summary-report-connected-nations-2017.pdf

ofcom_uk_broadband_and_mobile_stats_2017

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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7 Responses
  1. Avatar Reflection

    The report tells us how bad things are for some, without really telling the whole story. My connection would not meet the Universal Service Obligation (USO). The poor upstream speeds are a big limitation. I thought that when the exchange was upgraded from ADSL MAX (up to 8 Mb/s down; 448 Kb/s up) to ADSL2+ (up to 24 Mb/s down; 1.4 Mb/s up) my upstream situation would be significantly better (The line length is too long to benefit significantly on the download side). The upstream sync speed to the exchange did improve but the upstream through put did not. It appears BT capped it at 500 Kbps. There is nothing that can be done because there is no service level agreement for upstream with the ISP. So it appears it is not the technology that is needlessly making life difficult. These are the issue that OFCOM could have addressed, should be addressing, but I suspect will not.

    • The 1 Mbps upload qualifier is meant to mean ADSL2+ is excluded from the USO, don’t know what data Ofcom have for your line, but in the thinkbroadband USO there are two figures, one just looking at download and the other with both upload and download criteria.

      If the retailer is capping you, then an option is to move since lots of people on WBC ADSL2+ do get more than 500 Mbps but without seeing line stats hard to say more.

    • Avatar Reflection

      Andrew, it appears to be somewhat more complex than possibly most people appreciate. As you doubtless know, the ADSL2+ has 2 versions. There is the standard (Annex A) and the, extra cost, Annex M. Annex M has twice the potential upstream capability at the expense of the downstream. The important thing to remember here is that Annex M uses carriers for upstream that Annex A uses for downstream. That creates the potential for significant cross-talk interference on those carriers. The other thing to bear in mind is that, as I understand it, Annex M is only offered to lines with good signal to noise levels; basically lines close to the exchange.

      This is the intriguing bit. A line offered Annex M, with up to 1 Mb/s upstream, should get higher upstream, but lower downstream than Annex A with upstream capped at 0.5 Mb/s; however, it would probably get no better upstream and lower downstream than Annex A that did not have the upstream capped. Paying more for something the line would support anyway and reducing the downstream does not seem like it is in the consumers’ interest.

      Apart from showing how the consumers are not really being protected with upstream speeds, there is another aspect. Using different standards down adjacent phone lines is potentially problematic. There are now several versions of DSL that are or could be used. The potential interference is an issue. Concentrating on downstream speeds, without due consideration to upstream speeds, is not helpful. A good engineer should know that you don’t get something for nothing; there is always a trade-off. Consumers could easily see their current upstream and downstream speeds reduce with the introduction of additional technologies to create faster speeds for a few.

      In my situation, it is not the ISP that is capping and the ISP is a respected niche provider, not a low budget one. Annex M is not offered for my line. If it were offered, I don’t think £12 per month (ex VAT) to increase the upstream by some 0.3 Mb/s with a potential loss on the downstream of 2 Mb/s is an attractive option for a line below the USO.

    • Well aware of Annex M but I don’t think any USO plan that uses Annex M as a key part will get the approval of ministers and Ofcom. Removing ADSL2+ is actually an important step as it would allow VDSL2 to reuse the frequencies and also remove power plans that limit some people.

      Remember if someone is getting sub 10 Mbps on ADSL2+, ADSL2+ Annex M wins them nothing. For someone 15 Mbps ADSL2+ it might give them 1.2 to 1.5 Mbps upload but at the cost a Meg download, most people actually want the download.

      On your specific scenario need to see the actual line stats to see what is going on, e.g. we know PlusNet has a tendency to cap ADSL2+ users upload but on request they remove it.

    • Avatar MikeW

      @Reflection
      You’re right about the engineering trade-off, but perhaps missing the fact that engineers have indeed looked at the varieties of DSL to figure out the cross-impact.

      NICC, as a cross-industry forum, has the job of specifying what is and isn’t allowed on the wires. Most people know about the ANFP, which is document ND1602 (BT) or ND1604 (KCOM), that specifies what is allowed in terms of frequencies vs power at different points in the access network.

      To complement the ANFP, there are also guidelines to the use of DSL systems in the access network, document ND1405 (BT).

      All can be found on http://www.niccstandards.org.uk/publications/index.cfm

      Note that ND1405 indicates that Annex M is not compatible with the ANFP because of the potential for interference between the extra upstream tones on one line, and standard downstream tones on adjacent lines. It indicates that Annex M is only allowed with some additional shaping of spectrum – ie reduction in power of some tones.

      I agree that if Annex M is ever going to be part of the USO, then it isn’t going to achieve it by remaining a high-cost extra. But, like Andrew, I don’t really see it as part of the USO.

      As for your capping: that is strange. While it might not be your ISP, it isn’t an inherent part of a BTW hardware offering either. However, as Andrew mentions, Plusnet would have a tendency to port customers from 20CN to 21CN while retaining an upstream limitation, of the order of 450kbps. Perhaps your line has caught the same affliction.

  2. Avatar dragoneast

    Am I the only person to find it interesting that the big jump in average use is between basic internet and superfast, with not much difference between average use on superfast and ultrafast? Having survived in the past with the basic internet I’m surprised it’s as high as it is. Perhaps it shows what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.

    But I suspect what it really demonstrates is that, as with all public policy, it is driven by a vociferous small minority. The issue as with everything is whether their noise represents actual need, or not. That is the question no one dares ask. Broadband is the new religion and the penalty for heresy is to be burnt at the stake (metaphorically if not literally)! Not an issue to raise, I realise, in the Temple of the Pharisees!

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