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UK Government Incorrectly Claims 97% Superfast Broadband Cover UPDATE

Monday, July 8th, 2019 (9:44 am) - Score 2,321

The Government’s Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, Margot James MP, has wrongfully claimed that its Building Digital UK programme has now helped to push fixed “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) network coverage to 97% of UK premises (the expectation is that this could reach around 98% by the end of 2020).

The announcement came a little sooner than we expected and even the official BDUK programme hadn’t expected the 97% figure to be hit until around March 2020 (see below), which seemed like a reasonable prediction to us. As such we find ourselves wondering whether or not the minister has rounded-up her figures, although official Government stats have often tended to be ahead of other independently sourced coverage data but not usually by this much.

bduk impact march 2019

The announcement was quietly made as part of a brief commons chamber debate last week, which focused upon the issue of achieving superfast broadband coverage in rural areas. The only other interesting point to come out of this debate was the confirmation that the Scottish Government is now set to award contracts for their much delayed Reaching 100% (R100) broadband programme this “autumn“.

Otherwise Margot James largely used the opportunity to highlight the Government’s new £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme, which among other things has begun offering vouchers (£3,500 for small businesses and up to £1,500 for residents) to help homes and businesses in rural areas gain access to Gigabit capable broadband connections (ideally “full fibreFTTP services).

One catch here is that the RGC focuses itself upon the next generation of connectivity (i.e. beyond superfast), which means that it can also be harnessed by a much wider selection of rural areas (i.e. not only those in the final 3% of premises where superfast speeds have yet to reach).

We should point out that various local authorities, as well as the Welsh Government, also have their own complementary voucher schemes. On top of that the Better Broadband Subsidy Scheme (BBSS) is still going and offers smaller vouchers worth up to £350 to help area homes where only sub-2Mbps speeds are currently possible (here). Often vouchers like this can be aggregated by communities in order to help co-fund better upgrades.

NOTE: The most recent BDUK related contracts redefine “superfast” by the higher figure of 30Mbps+ and we’re not yet at 97% for that.

Margot James MP said:

“The Government’s superfast broadband programme has met its target and is now providing superfast coverage to 97% of premises, including 94.8% of premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency [this is a reply to Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham].

In addition, we have just launched the rural gigabit connectivity programme, with £200 million of funding, to begin to deliver even faster, gigabit speeds to the most remote and rural parts of the UK.”

Assuming the remaining elements of the Superfast Programme do reach 98% coverage by around the end of 2020 then it’s largely expected that the final 2% of premises will be tackled by the new Universal Service Obligation (USO), which from March 2020 will make it possible for those in slow speed areas to request a broadband speed of at least 10Mbps (many will get much faster than this) from either BT (Openreach) or KCOM (Hull only).

Currently around 620,000 premises fall into USO bracket (England 434K premises, N.Ireland 39.5K, Scotland 99K and Wales 47K) but the figure continues to shrink as fixed “superfast” coverage grows. BT has predicted that 4G based wireless broadband services could substantially reduce the USO footprint by providing coverage to 450,000 of the estimated c.600K eligible premises in 2020, although some FTTC/P services will also be deployed.

At this point it’s probably worth comparing the Government’s claimed 97% figure to the latest independent H1 2019 network coverage model from Thinkbroadband, which tends to be more cautious in its figures than the Government’s official data (partly because they take a bit longer to track new areas once they’ve gone live). The figures are estimates but they’re a handy alternative to official data and Ofcom.

NOTE: The figure in brackets (%) below represents the previous 2018 H2 result.

Fixed Broadband Network Availability 2019 H1

Area % Superfast 24Mbps+ % Ultrafast 100Mbps+ % Full Fibre FTTP/H % Under 10Mbps USO
London 97.3% (97.1%) 74.7% (73.9%) 11.31% (9.00%) 2.2% (2.4%)
England 96.6% (96.3%) 60.2% (58.9%) 7.95% (5.62%) 2.4% (2.7%)
UK 96.1% (95.8%) 57.5% (56.1%) 8.13% (5.47%) 2.7% (3%)
Wales 95.2% (95%) 37% (36%) 8.59% (6.12%) 3.5% (3.6%)
Scotland 94% (93.7%) 47.7% (46%) 5.05% (2.8%) 4.7% (5%)
Northern Ireland 89.5% (88.5%) 45.5% (39.3%) 23.16% (8.67%) 7.1% (7.6%)

NOTE 1: Nearly all of the “ultrafast” (100Mbps+) coverage is coming from Virgin Media’s cable network, although Openreach, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, Cityfibre, TrueSpeed and others all have big “full fibre” (FTTP/H) expansion ambitions for related services (details). The 330Mbps capable G.fast roll-out to 5.7 million UK premises by the end of 2020 will also help.

NOTE 2: Recent BDUK contracts have adopted the EU and Ofcom’s higher download speed target of 30Mbps+ for “superfast” connectivity, which on average tends to trail around 0.2-0.4% points behind the 24Mbps+ figures above (we don’t list this due to the limited difference).

NOTE 3: It’s very important to remember that Government / political targets like 95% or 98% reflect a national average, which can of course be better or worse for some regions (e.g. a few may achieve universal coverage, while others could be well below that).

Over the longer term the Government has also committed to achieve “nationwide” coverage of ultrafast “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband networks by 2033, although we continue to view that as being more of an aspiration than a tangible target since at present there’s no solid framework or funding commitment available to actually deliver it.

In order to hit that level of coverage with pure fibre optic networks we’d need to be seeing more than 2 million extra FTTP premises added in the UK each year for the next decade (still some distance to go). Current efforts suggest the rollout may ramp up to this point in the not too distance future but as soon as you reach the final 30-40% of premises then this pace will inevitably slow as communities become smaller and more sparse.

The 2033 date is not impossible but it’s still highly optimistic and based on a lot of assumptions. Meanwhile we have Boris Johnson’s aspiration toward “delivering full fibre [broadband] to every home in the land” by 2025 (here). We salute the boldness of that and welcome the focus on full fibre among more politicians, which is wonderful to see, although actually delivering by 2025 is simply impossible.

We have yet to see any country – except maybe for the odd city-state with very different considerations to the UK – where rolling out a Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network to cover every single premises wasn’t an incredibly slow (time-scales measured in decades) and laborious project. So don’t be surprised if, when Boris becomes the next PM (highly likely), he eventually has to change the date to something more realistic.

Meanwhile the other candidate to be our next PM, Jeremy Hunt, has just said this: “I have pledged to fast track the delivery of the fibre network by five years and so will make the required funding available to roll out full fibre by 2027.” Once again we’re not sure how either the 2025 or 2027 dates will be even remotely possible but we await the details of their magic.

UPDATE 2:48pm

The Government (DCMS) has confirmed that Margot James made a mistake and incorrectly said 97% when she should have said 96% (as per our summary of TBB’s figures above). Granted 1% might not seem like a big error but it equates to nearly 300,000 premises and so is not something to be sniffed at.

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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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22 Responses
  1. Avatar AnotherTim says:

    Although I’m in an area that is planned to have FTTP, the build isn’t currently planned to start before the USO comes into effect, and I expect there are lots of people in similar situations (almost 14% of The Forest of Dean are sub-USO). Although I can get 3G/4G that meets the USO, it still isn’t superfast (and getting slower as more locals switch to 4G from ADSL). So despite being “in plan” for FTTP and within reach of 4G I don’t expect any actual improvement for several years (if ever, as I expect there is more chance of the FTTP contract being cancelled than being completed).

  2. Avatar Jigsy says:

    The image above makes it look like they’re giving up on the people stuck in the USO line.

    1. Avatar Joe says:

      How are they giving up – thats the whole point of USO.

    2. Avatar Jigsy says:

      Because the customer has to *ask* for it.

    3. Avatar Gary says:

      @Joe, the Article is about ‘Superfast’ The USO Has nothing to do with that.

      Sure some implementations under USO may well provide it but only as a result of that tech solution being cheaper/more efficient to deploy. Not forgetting the USO doesn’t guarantee you a connection, Nor does the Scotland R99.9%

  3. Avatar Malcolm Beaton says:

    Yes I am getting a sinking feeling about the USO – looks as if rather than give us FTTP we will get fobbed off with 4G – I live in the Greenland Dock SE16 stuck on a EO line with Openreach having no plans for the area and Hyperoptic having no current plans for the area – looks like all the new properties and council properties are getting the bandwidth – currently Three (formerly Relish) reckon we could get around 15mb to 20mb although they are not taking on any new customers due to optimisation of the network – tried using my friends Three phone on a Saturday night and got 1mb download speed !

    1. Avatar Jigsy says:

      I’ve been floating between 512 kbps to 1.5 Mbps on my home broadband for nearly three years now.

    2. Avatar Joe says:

      Optimisation of the network issues are usually temporary.

    3. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

      That’s a pity as our experience of Three here in West Devon is excellent, reliably getting 20 Mbps down and 5 to 8 up with unlimited data for only £22 a month, for an average family it is ample, we are delighted as previously our only option was 3 Mbps ADSL or capped data at a much higher price from EE.

  4. Avatar nga for all says:

    In 2016 the DCMS/OFCom consultations said 96%, yet there are 400k more under contract which takes us beyond the 97%.

    This is before R100 in Scotland 120k premises- not including the 60k more announced last week, or Project Stratum in NI 93k, and there is all the clawback and a big additional pending work in the BDUK spreadsheets.

    I hope the opportunity to test full fibre in rural exhanges is taken. It would have a transformative impact on the £3bn-£5bn budgets being floated. There is at least another £1bn within the BDUK process to complete rural. The B-USO needs to be set aside for some time while this work is contracted where needed and then concluded.

    1. Avatar CarlT says:

      The most rural stuff is all FTTP.

      A reminder: FTTP doesn’t go back to local exchanges and Openreach cannot retire copper right now. If Openreach were allowed to retire copper entirely it would make them very happy – they have no interest in managing exchanges in sheds.

      I’d sit back and wait for the outcome of discussions between Openreach and Ofcom regarding copper retirement.

    2. Avatar Gary HILTON says:

      @ CarlT.

      Re your reminder: Openreach regularly in PR and in their own published documents refer to exchanges in regard to FTTP, Enabled for FTTP, “FTTP exchange based upgrade” plans in their consultation document, it goes on and on all the way to their own public information website which informs us that
      FTTP:The future is Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), where pure fibre optic cables connect you straight to the exchange.

      ISPreview do it too like in this article

      Openreach Publish UK FTTP Broadband Build Plan for 84 Exchanges
      Tuesday, February 19th, 2019 (8:17 am) – Score 17,694

      which you responded to with :

      February 19, 2019 at 8:54 am
      In before the complaints because xxx exchange isn’t on this list.

      @ngaforall “I hope the opportunity to test full fibre in rural exhanges is taken.”

      If you’ve not seen it have a read of:

      Openreach Industry Consultation on: FTTP Exchange Upgrade and Single Order Exchange Upgrade trialling.

      For ORs current thinking on the future for exchanges.

    3. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

      Right now, OR are still default installing new copper into newly built and unserved premises, begs the question when they will stop doing this, given they are unlikely to ever see a return on it..

    4. Avatar Gary says:

      They’re stuck in a bit of a spot right now aren’t they. They have obligations for what’s become an unwanted legacy product yet installing new doesn’t fit with either the national or their own plans for the network.

      Its going to take some big changes and financial commitment to put a stop to new copper going in given they’re looking at Copper adsl to provide Voip only service provision.

    5. Avatar Andrew Ferguson says:

      Openreach FTTP does got to an exchange just one of the 1290 odd handover exchanges, rather than the large set of 5,500 where copper services terminate.

      So talking about an exchange in relation to FTTP is fine

    6. Avatar Andrew Ferguson says:

      On the new build – while some are still copper only the majority of fibre only now and likely to continue to increase as builds previously underway give way to ones where the ball started rolling after FTTP became the fashion.

  5. Avatar Timeless says:

    you can never trust a Tory to tell the truth if you ask me… everything they say is to make themselves look good, the truth is just a convenience when it happens which isnt very often.

    1. Avatar Gary says:

      Might as well replace ‘Tory’ with ‘Politician’ Regardless of your political leaning if you believe everything your chosen party tell you…..well Good luck.

    2. Avatar Timeless says:

      while l agree politics isnt perfect, l dont think they are all the same.. the problem with such a mindset always leads to Tories getting in and whenever Tories enter office they sell off yet more of our publicly owned services..

      my point being, Tory voters will always vote Tory, if everyone else decides they cant be bothered to vote because they are all the same should look back to the last 36 years and ask themselves which governments things like the NHS improved under and which it failed under (granted past governments have been far from perfect, but in retrospect the economies growth and its subsequent fall under the the Tories speaks for itself).

  6. Avatar Rahul says:

    I can place a bet that by March 2020 I will still be amongst the 3% without Superfast (FTTC) let alone FTTP and I live in Urban London E1.

    The problem with the Universal Service Obligation is that it will only tackle those who achieve less than 10Mbps. It takes no responsibility for those such as myself with above 10Mbps but no Superfast availability due to being on an EO Line.

    It begs the question that if it is not economically viable to upgrade EO Lines here within 10 minutes walk to the City of London, how on earth can we expect to trust Openreach to help rural areas using the same excuse?

    Ultimately the same excuse on ‘economical viability’ will be raised and most will be once again ignored. This is why I have been sceptical all this time on how the UK will achieve full fibre by 2033 when places like mine still don’t have FTTC for more than 10 years!
    The Fibre checker may show “Good news – we’ll be upgrading your area to Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) soon.”
    Considering that deploying Fibre Cabinets is cheaper than FTTP and not to mention wayleave agreements are less of an issue. If we aren’t even achieving 100% Superfast coverage, then we can’t take Ultrafast 2033 seriously.

    1. Avatar AnotherTim says:

      You won’t be the only one. If all goes to plan, Gigaclear will start the build in my area in around a year. Of course, none of their plans have worked out yet…

    2. Avatar Rahul says:

      Well that’s the problem, Tim. We are having to rely on the Altnet providers to fill in the gaps where Openreach have ignored for years. No wonder volunteers like B4RN took the initiative, something that’s impossible to do in urban areas.

      You might have some luck in your area if wayleave issues are kept to a minimum.
      But we have problems in many urban areas where Openreach do not want to upgrade these cabinets due to EO Lines. Many of these residential buildings have building managements that are hard to reach or persuade.

      From discussions with my managing team, they don’t want Hyperoptic for example. They say “If we are going to agree on Fibre we will do it with another provider, not Hyperoptic” and that’s just one technical manager, the rest seem powerless. However, at the same time they say that they’ll think about it in future as at the moment there are more important things such as building renovations/ cladding replacement due to fire safety regulations.

      So clearly this is a deadlock situation since Openreach won’t agree to upgrade to neither FTTP or FTTC even if the Fibre checker shows the plan. Now of-course I will chase them again once the building renovations complete.
      But if there are excuses being thrown out at every single stage 100% coverage will not be achieved in any meaningful time-frame.

      Hence why 2033 Full Fibre feels unrealistic, (at least to me). The only way to make it realistic is if the wayleave barriers can be broken down to forcefully be able to install Fibre regardless of whether the authorities grant permission or not. Bit like in Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria where there are hardly any restrictions or red tape. But then that’s why at the same time there’s so much mismanagement and corruption in these countries.

      Of-course I’m very interested to know how OSO will address wayleave issues for those on less than 10Mbps!

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