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Study Claims 236 UK Constituencies Have Poor Broadband and Mobile

Saturday, December 7th, 2019 (7:41 am) - Score 2,010

A new study from consumer magazine Which? has claimed that people living in 36% of UK constituency areas (236 of the 650 total) do not have access to “decent 4G [mobile] or broadband” services. The study was based on old data from Ofcom and found that areas in rural Scotland and Wales bore the brunt of the problem.

At the time of writing Which? has only published a vague news article and we couldn’t find any table to depict their actual data for 4G mobile and broadband (we hope they’ll publish that later this morning). The news article also fails to clarify precisely what data from Ofcom they’ve used to reach their conclusions and how it was weighted.

In terms of defining what “decent” broadband constitutes, Which? used the government’s new Universal Service Obligation (USO) as a guide (i.e. 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload), although it’s unclear where they set the coverage bar for this.

As for mobile, the group defined constituencies lacking “comprehensive” 4G coverage as those where more than 1% of outdoor premises did not have signal from all four mobile network operators (based on very old data from September 2018). Many areas would easily fall into that category as mobile coverage is notoriously variable and expecting near perfect coverage is perhaps unrealistic.

Aside from rural areas across Scotland and Wales, the study noted that many constituencies, “made up of mostly urban areas” including parts of Canterbury, Macclesfield, Maidstone, Norfolk, Southampton, Surrey and York, were also affected. A fair few seaside towns were also said to be “plagued by both substandard 4G and poor broadband“, including Dover, Cleethorpes, Great Yarmouth, Scarborough and Whitby, and Totnes.

Sadly no actual data for any of the aforementioned areas was included in their news report, which makes it exceedingly difficult to fact check their conclusions. We can however pick out a few examples to examine the broadband side of things.

For example, York is almost entirely covered by “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) capable networks (same for Dover etc.), while Virgin Media and TalkTalk’s FibreNation platform have ensured that more than half of its premises can access a gigabit-capable or “full fibre” (FTTP) network. Openreach also has a growing chunk of FTTP and G.fast in the area. Suffice to say that some of Which?’s picks for bad constituencies have us puzzled.

NOTE: We recommend Thinkbroadband‘s database for checking broadband.

At present fixed “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) coverage sits at an estimated 96% of UK premises today (up from 83% in 2015) and this is predicted to reach 97-98% by the end of 2020. Similarly geographic outdoor coverage of 4G based mobile services from all four mobile operators has risen to 66% of the UK (up from 64% last year), although EE alone are able to reach 91%, but mobile is certainly still a problem area. Here’s what Ofcom’s own more recent data actually says for the UK.

4g_mobile_uk_coverage_may_2019
fixed_broadband_coverage_may_2019

Clearly broadband and mobile connectivity has improved a lot over the past few years, which is well illustrated above. Nevertheless there are still plenty of slowspots or weakspots for both fixed broadband and mobile connectivity to be found, particularly around remote rural communities. As you’d expect Which? has come up with some vague recommendations for the next Government, which are in desperate need of more definition.

Which?s’ Recommendations to the Next Government

* Set out an ambitious, joined-up strategy to deliver improved digital infrastructure, meeting the needs of people to be connected at home, at work and on the move.

* Set clear connectivity targets for the UK, with a clear roadmap for how and when they will be delivered and clarity on how existing initiatives will interact and work alongside each other.

* Improve 4G mobile coverage across the UK, ensuring consumers have access to a sufficient choice of operators, and addressing total and partial ‘not-spots’.

* Reduce the barriers to speedy and effective broadband rollout programmes, including a legal requirement for new-build homes to be built with gigabit-capable connections [ISPr Editor: This is still being consulted upon], and a communications strategy for consumer take-up.

None of this will come as much of a surprise since sparse rural communities, as well as a few digitally isolated urban areas, are often last on the list for upgrades. This is due to the disproportionate economic challenges of building new networks to cater for so few customers over a wide area.

We should add that the United Kingdom is by no means alone in having weak points, which is well illustrated by the EU’s most recent digital connectivity progress report, where we come above most other nations for superfast broadband and 4G coverage (here). Admittedly though the UK is still extremely weak on “full fibre” (FTTP) services but that is rapidly starting to change (here).

Richard Tang, Founder and Chairman of UK ISP Zen Internet, said:

“For too long, broadband connectivity has been a major issue for all around the UK and users particularly affected should rightfully feel aggrieved. No matter who occupies 10 Downing Street at the end of next week, the Government must deliver in paving the way for world-leading connectivity and ensure this is a priority moving forward.

This includes addressing issues now including the taxation of fibre cables, the ease of laying infrastructure and tackling a national skills shortage. These are critical ingredients for the success of the UK economy in an era where fast, reliable, robust connectivity is an absolute must and something everyone in the country deserves access to.”

In terms of solutions, there are currently a mix of different approaches being pursued. Firstly, Ofcom recently confirmed that the number of premises unable to get access via a “decent broadband” (10Mbps+) service has fallen to 2% or 578,0000 premises (down from 619,000 earlier this year), which is likely to fall again before the Government’s new legally-binding Universal Service Obligation (USO) is introduced in March 2020.

The new USO will enable anybody in a sub-10Mbps area, and not on a future roll-out plan for faster speeds (covering the next 12 months), to request a speed of at least 10Mbps, which is likely to be delivered via either a 4G or fixed fibre (FTTC or FTTP) service from BT (or KCOM if you live within their patch of East Yorkshire).

On top of that the Government recently pledged to cover the whole of the UK with “gigabit-capable” broadband services by the end of 2025, which is to be supported by an additional public investment of £5bn in order to help reach those in the hardest to reach (final 20%) of areas. Not to mention all the many voucher / subsidy schemes that are still running, such as the £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme.

However, we are still awaiting further details on this new programme and it will be a couple of years before they implement the new framework / policy (needed before builds can start). Of course it remains to be seen how effective any of these new programmes will be and whether they will achieve their goals. The 2025 target for gigabit broadband looks to be particularly challenging.

Finally, the Government has also committed £500m to support the recent £1bn industry-led agreement on a mobile coverage – Shared Rural Network (here), which aims to extend geographic 4G coverage to 95% of the United Kingdom by the end of 2025. Arguably most of what Which? wants is already happening.

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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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23 Responses
  1. Avatar The Facts

    Is Totnes a seaside town?

    • Avatar Lister

      Technically.. I suppose, it sits at the top of a tidal estuary up from beautiful Dartmouth but coastal is stretching it by which?. Been through there a few times. Worth saying that they blocked the 5g rollout I think, so no surprise if mobile is poor.

    • Avatar Pezza

      @Lister, I’m sorry but I really don’t think 5G has anything to do with poor signals. Considering only a tiny handful of devices, I think maybe 3? That are very expensive even support 5G currently in the UK, then it would have no impact on the research results. Plus I don’t believe 5G has yet made it out of the cities and big towns yet.
      Your clutching at straws I believe with that one.

  2. Avatar Mark

    The network maps are poor and inaccurate, High quality outdoor coverage from all networks in my area, in reality you can’t even get a signal I’ve tested every street, and it picks up nothing with any sim card, but how do they expect it to be when the mast is nearly 3 miles away. OFCOM results taken with a pinch of salt too. It seems to be not in Vogue mobile masts, with people objecting to them more and more, and broadband cabinets too,a couple have been abandoned in my area not getting Planning permission, landowners wayleave problems Now into it’s third year.perhaps people to really want Britain to go back to the 1950s, judging my some objection letters I’ve read in my area, “We managed without mobiles 30 years ago”

    • Avatar Brian

      The network maps are far to optimistic, all 4 operators claim good coverage for myself on all the variants they have. One (O2) has no signal of any form, and the other three are highly variable. Just leaving Three as they reconfigured something, presumably to improve coverage elsewhere from the mast, removing the ability to make phone calls.

  3. Avatar Moriarty

    Funny what Brits call “decent” when it comes to internet… Hello, I’m coming from poor Romania and I remember I had there 50Mbps in 2003. Now, in that stupidly poor Romania, the lowest ever internet subscription you can get is 150Mbps in rural areas and 250Mbps in urban. And 1Gbps is available in most urban areas for about 7 years already, it costs nothing, like 5-6 quid per month, with no installation fee, no nothing. People don’t necessarily buy 1Gbps because their already existing 250Mbps is good enough, but still, they have the fiber in their flat.
    Even Vodafone offers, in Romania, 1Gbps on fiber, it costs nothing. And 4G… That’s about 5EUR for unlimited data, actual download speed is about 40-50Mbps in busy urban areas and slightly higher in rural.

    • Avatar DontMakeMeLaugh

      Interesting how many times someone can get ‘Romania’ into one post.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Okay. What’s the average income in Romania and what’s the average peak time speed of these gigabit services?

      I’ve seen 1 Gb down, 400 Mb up available in France for €28. Unfortunately at peak times it’s more like 200 Mb down if you’re lucky.

      In the case of Romania I see a package that is ‘up to’ 500 Mb download, 25 Mb upload from UPC, part of the same group as Virgin Media, for £8 a month.

      Sounds great until you read the terms and conditions informing that the ‘expected normal’ speed is actually 300/15 and the minimum 20/5 Mb.

      Just to repeat: ‘normal’ speed on a 500/25 Mb service in Romania is 300/15 Mb and acceptable speed goes right down to 20/5 Mb.

      In the UK you get to have to advertise the peak time median, so neither the ‘up to’ or ‘expected normal’ are acceptable, and the absolute minimum is no less than half the maximum.

      Like for like comparisons these aren’t. That ignoring the income / purchasing power differences.

    • Avatar CarlT

      While I’m at it another quote ‘fibre in their flat’. Fibre to the building we have a fair bit of here, too, alongside full fibre to individual units. Again, though, far more expensive as people expect what they are paying for in the UK and incomes are higher. We also have far fewer people living in apartment blocks.

      A bunch of our apartment blocks have gigabit services available and people do actually get that gigabit, not 1/20th of it, at peak times as there’s not a single gigabit link feeding an entire block or group of blocks with people being sold the entire backhaul.

      Romania and the UK are not comparable and never have been. Totally different circumstances, markets and histories.

    • Avatar MartinConf

      The UK will improve their broadband, they first need to stop subsidising Romania (and others) with the large amounts of money they send to the EU

    • Avatar CarlT

      The private sector is improving broadband in the UK. EU, and politics in general, largely irrelevant to the bulk of the work so let’s keep it out of this largely unrelated issue, eh?

    • Avatar Andrew Ferguson

      Was on my Friday todo list but got missed – did get the new FTTP map done though. Have some FTTP/B deployment pictures from Bucharest to share beyond my usual social media crowd

      Fingers crossed Sunday morning

    • Avatar MartinConf

      @CarlT “The private sector is improving broadband in the UK”

      The main reason broadband is being improved across the entire UK is down to government money via BDUK for example, lets not pretend its the private sector driving it.

    • Avatar Fastman

      disinformation of the highest order

      @CarlT “The private sector is improving broadband in the UK”
      The main reason broadband is being improved across the entire UK is down to government money via BDUK for example, lets not pretend its the private sector driving it.

      openreaxch has invested now close to 4 – 5bn of its own funding (either through Commmercial progamme 2.5bn since 2010 or its fibre cities programme or its matched amount from BDUK

    • Avatar MartinConf

      @Fastman, @CarlT

      My Bad

    • Avatar CarlT

      No worries.

      Remember also the money CityFibre and Virgin Media are spending, too.

      £2.5 billon and £3 billion respectively. Add that to Openreach’s spend it’s a considerable amount of money.

      In some areas, sure, public sector is driving it but nationwide the big drive to FTTP is private sector cash.

  4. Avatar Gary

    SO a pretty flawed ‘Study’ Shame as many areas do in fact have poor broadband and mobile coverage, sadly as has been mentioned coverage maps vs the real world paint a different picture. In theory my area looks pretty well served with mobile but in our local town there are huge gaps in coverage between operators, I cant get 3 or 4G in the town but barely a mile away in the sticks its full signal and 4G.

    Another neat thing to do is quote coverage using as large an area as possible, frequently used to mask the disparity across the UK in broadband. HIE at 80% superfast and RoS at 95.3% but Scotland had 93.2% so thats the one that gets used.

  5. Avatar gerarda

    Which? using Ofcom data is a classic example of the lame following the blind

  6. Avatar David

    My old VM line which was 300 kinda lags compared to EE right now.. I am glad I work nights!

    https://www.nperf.com/r/3227185623479934-26Xe4lGS

    • Avatar David

      That’s 4G+ btw on an unlimited sim – I am hoping this is a good sign for 5G at some stage in the future

  7. Avatar James

    Interesting. Living in a suburb of Birmingham with an asdl line of 4-8 mbps I officially have by their measure substandard broadband. And no chance of fibre in my area for some reason. I feel the figure of 95% for superfast is more than it is in reality.

  8. Avatar FedupSkyCustomer

    PCP 8 in Basingstoke is still waiting for FTTP upgrade and only provide FTTC which provides pontless speeds of 1.1Mb

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