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England Councils Report Warns of Gigabit Broadband Divide

Thursday, October 21st, 2021 (5:37 pm) - Score 2,016
Internet Download High Speed Concept Illustration. 1 Gbps in Focus. Global Broadband Networks Speed 3D.

The County Councils Network (CCN), which is a cross-party special interest group of the Local Government Association (LGA) – representing 36 of England’s councils, has published a new report that warns of a growing divide in “gigabit-capable broadband” (1Gbps) coverage between urban cities and the “rural shires“.

According to the ‘Levelling Up Digital Connectivity in Counties‘ report (using data from Ofcom), the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) currently expects around 68% of the country to be covered by a gigabit speed network by the end of 2021. But the report notes that just 21% of premises in “county areas” currently have access to such services.

Premises-with-access-to-gigabit-speeds-by-council-area

Indeed, ten counties currently have less than 15% gigabit coverage – Cumbria, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, Somerset, and Surrey. Such county areas are lagging far behind London, which has 77% gigabit coverage, and large towns and cities in the North and the West Midlands, which have on average 51% coverage.

None of this should come as any great surprise because, so far, most of the fixed line deployments of gigabit-capable broadband networks only began (at a large scale) around 3 years ago and have largely come from commercial builds, which naturally almost always focus on the most economically viable urban areas first. This is how it always goes.

The latest data from Thinkbroadband estimates that 27% of properties can access a gigabit speed service via Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology, but much of the recently rapid growth in coverage has actually come from Virgin Media’s almost completed DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade of their existing Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) lines. Together this brings gigabit coverage to 57% today and, with VMO2’s rollout due to finish by the end of 2021, we may well see that reach c.65% within the next couple of months.

The Project Gigabit Challenge

By comparison, the Government’s new £5bn Project Gigabit, which aims to try and correct the problem by focusing public investment toward the final 20% of hardest to reach (predominantly rural) areas, has only recently left the drawing board. As part of that, its first contracts won’t even begin to be awarded until around mid-2022 (i.e. the first builds under this might not happen until late 2022 or early 2023).

NOTE: Project Gigabit aims to ensure that at least 85% of UK premises can access a gigabit network by the end of 2025, while also aiming to achieve 100% as soon as possible. The current pace of commercial build alone makes the 85% target very viable.

As we said earlier, the CCN report doesn’t say anything particularly new or surprising.

Peter Aldous MP, Chairman of the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, said:

“Like heating and water, an internet connection has increasingly become a necessary utility for households, with the pandemic making digital an even more vital part of our everyday lives. In committing to giving 85% of the country access to gigabit speeds by 2025, the government recognises this and has made broadband one of its flagship policies.

Whilst progress in connectivity has been rapid since 2019, much of this has been focused on London and the major cities so far, and there is a real risk that county areas are once again the poor relation in internet speeds unless the government urgently prioritises county areas.

If the government’s levelling-up and economic recovery efforts are to be successful, providing fast and reliable broadband must be part of the equation. It is vital that this investment reaches left-behind county areas, and local county authorities stand ready to work with government on the rollout.”

The full report includes a series of fairly generalised recommendations, which cover a lot of areas where the Government and Ofcom are already working on improvements to existing policy (e.g. updating the Building Regulations and Electronic Communications Code etc.). We also see another call for “subsidised digital access for Universal Credit recipients” (i.e. a regulated social broadband tariff).

However, some of these ideas might fall on deaf ears. For example, the call to put “upper-tier councils” in charge of Project Gigabit funding, for their respective areas, overlooks part of the reason why Building Digital UK chose to centralise the new programme within DCMS – precisely to avoid the delays (e.g. Devon and Somerset) that occurred with local authority administered schemes under the prior Superfast Broadband (SFBB) programme.

Recommendations

1. with other parts of the country seeing a rapid increase in gigabit connectivity since 2019, government should now ramp up investment for county areas, and and prioritise those places so their gigabit accessibility rates can begin to catch up with the major cities and other parts of England.

2. the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities engage with the local government sector to consider what regulatory or legislative changes need to be made to ensure that broadband connections are included as standard in new developments and that the network is future proofed.

3. the Department for Work and Pensions assess whether it is possible to put in place a scheme providing subsidised digital access for Universal Credit recipients, to assist them with job-hunting and to meet the obligations required of them.

4. BDUK continue to work closely with county and unitary councils in the delivery of Project Gigabit and prioritise rollout in county areas using existing knowledge and expertise acquired from the national Better Broadband Programme

5. BDUK works to ensure its procurement processes are of sufficient scale for contracts to successfully meet the needs of the rural communities BDUK are aiming to support.

6. as part of the forthcoming suite of powers available to county authorities in devolution deals, the devolution of local digital infrastructure budgets – including subsidies – to make them the responsibility of upper-tier councils should be available in every devolution deal, if the local authority wished to take on that responsibility.

7. government should extend strategic planning powers to counties to join-up development with digital infrastructure provision that will meet residents’ needs.

8. the government considers what legislation it could put in place to secure access to land for the purpose of laying broadband cabling where the landowner is resistant.

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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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33 Responses
  1. Occasionally Ranty says:

    Must be nice to live in an area where they have a forward thinking council who proactively want people to get better broadband. Or you could live in one like I do where they say they’ve already brought super fast broadband to 89% of us so we don’t need to do anything more. Oh and they have a policy of denying permission for 5G installations.

  2. Buggerlugz says:

    Access to gigabit services is all well and good, unfortunately it has to be affordable too. Which it currently isn’t.

    1. Ben says:

      Meh – once the infrastructure is in place folks can upgrade as the need arises / as prices fall.

    2. anonymous says:

      Depends on the income and how much people want it.

  3. jason says:

    gigabit broadband over hyped anyway i wouldnt panic it makes little difference to your life .

    1. Mark says:

      It depends on what you do, for alot downstream won’t make a huge difference but higher upload makes it worth it especially when you use cloud storage.

    2. Anon says:

      It’s a future proofing mechanism. By the time 150mbps becomes obsolete, which it will, it will take too long to upgrade everyone and people will be left lagging.

      A single, big leap forward is cheaper and more effective than 3 or 4 rounds of upgrade. You could argue in a household with 2 people working from home, and 2 kids on school holidays gaming and streaming; 150mbps is already woefully inadequate.

    3. Mark says:

      Sure – two streams at say 5 Mb/s each, and two Zoom calls at say 2 Mb/s each. 150 Mb/s is clearly woefully inadequate to cope with that…

  4. Christine conder says:

    Councils had their chance with the first lot of funding in 2010 and they blew it all by giving it to openreach for FTTC rubbish, branded to them as ‘fibre broadband’. They are not to be trusted with any more responsibility.

    1. The Facts says:

      How much FTTP would the same funding have provided and in what timescale?

    2. anonymous says:

      Gigaclear are spending £1,300+ per home passed in intervention areas, after subsidy, are burning cash and have contracts running years behind.

      To get the costs down to ‘commercial’ levels you’re talking £1,000 – £1,500 per home passed. The budget wasn’t there for everyone to get full fibre.

      Councils knew exactly what they were getting and their target was as much 24 or 30 Mbps as they could not full fibre. As far as I know no council had complaints about the coverage and performance from Openreach – they got what was agreed and we paid for.

    3. NGA for all says:

      Chris, The numbers are ~600k subsidised FTTP including 85k in Cornwall with another 400k under contract yet to be delivered. There were ~38k cabinets which have served well in the pandemic. I think a third of the latter can be questioned. FTTC-Cure will be a curse and those in business parks are an embarrassment.

      If the untriggered Clawback was re-used it could solve another 300-350k in England and Wales.

    4. 5G_Infinity says:

      Anonymous

      Commercial rates for homes passed, are GBP200 to 400 in urban street deployments. GBP1000 is edge of suburban into nearby rural – assuming access to ducts/poles and and otherwise simple street trenching.

    5. anonymous says:

      Just going by Gigaclear’s own announcements on their costs and the details of their arrangements alongside research charts.

      The figure I mentioned was the subsidy to get costs for the tail down to the £300-500 level Openreach and CityFibre default to for the majority of the country. Believe under £700 for VM and Openreach’s more rural commercial builds.

  5. kuro68k says:

    Not just gigabit download speeds. Everyone on OpenReach is stuck with slow uploads.

    1. Jason says:

      Everyone being the small minority of people that will need a huge upload speed ….. Keep complaining

    2. Paul says:

      lol “huge upload speed”.

      On VM it’s 35mbit. Raising to 50 if you are lucky enough.
      On OR it’s anyone’s guess but anywhere from 1mbit to 200 with most people sitting around 10mbit.

      Most of us have something like 10mbit upload or less and people like you try to ridicule them for wanting more. We will not be silenced by people like you who think we don’t need or deserve more upload bandwidth.

      A car gets you from A to B. Yet some do 70mph and some do 155mph. I don’t see you standing outside BMW holding your sign saying nobody needs to do more than 70mph.

      The tired old “but muh network was designed for download” doesn’t have any validity in the 21st century. It costs almost nothing to give more upload. They just don’t want to worse I’m tired of the people on here that moan whenever someone desires a bit more upload bw.

      This is not reddit and it’s not twitter. It would be better if people didn’t comment if they can’t add something that relates to the field of computer networks/science. Too much of this my opinion stuff and shaming others for theirs.

    3. anonymous says:

      Costs VM in quite a big way to provide more upload, Paul.

      Openreach… not so much. They don’t have any technical excuse.

  6. Disgusted of Dankshire says:

    @anonymous
    Try finding an SLA between the council & openreach, no chance.
    Do you think councils were informed that area’s would be getting sub superfast broadband, and chose to ignore the advice,
    because there are many who are paying the same for superfast and beyond, but not getting anything like superfast.
    The UPSO is a joke, and should be set to 24Mbs at least.

    1. anonymous says:

      Councils paid for premises that received over 24 or 30 depending on the contract. Openreach contracted to deliver this to a certain number of premises and as far as I’m aware achieved this through all contracts.

      The contracts may not have listed individual premises to be uplifted but they did list numbers.

      Openreach weren’t deploying FTTP on the outskirts of some cabinet areas for fun. We can certainly point blame at the original structure of the programme but Openreach as far as I know did what they said they would.

    2. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Copper is Fibre says:

      Openreach could have gone the same route that Sweden/Denmark/Romania and many more EU countries went and start installing fibre in the 90s/early 00s. But they didn’t.

      And now we’re expected to feel bad for them for keeping a death grip on copper for as long as humanly possible even when the writing was on the wall 20 years ago? We’re supposed to think OR did a good job when they installed crap like 30mbit FTTC and called it “Fibre”?

      No. OR did the bare minimum, largely on public money. They were not, and still are not fit for purpose. Why do so many on here defend Openreach? The only thing I can think is that they’re employees. I can’t think anyone in this country, who knows even remotely anything about networks could defend OR.

      Yes, they’re catching up. It’s still not good enough, and it’s not fast enough.

      Yes I realise I’m not doing anything about it myself. I’d love to. However, I’m not in the business of providing people with internet access and pretending copper cables are actually fibre ones.

    3. The Facts says:

      @WiP – Why has is taken all the altnets so long to appear? Why were they not building 10 years ago?

      OR are a business with shareholders, what do you mean by purpose in a competitive world? VM gave up some years ago and have only recently restarted and could have covered the whole of the UK.

    4. anonymous says:

      No-one should feel sorry for Openreach. There is a fair amount in between bashing them and unconditionally supporting them.

      The blame for much of what you mention may be laid at past and present governments. Had Openreach been allowed to retire copper years ago they would have had the business case to build the fibre sooner.

      Situation isn’t comparable. See Germany for a better parallel to the UK.

    5. Buggerlugz says:

      Called it Superfast then, call it superfast now. It isn’t and never was, it was a big con and BT are still relishing that cash-cow now in 2021.

  7. Bill says:

    lol, gigabit divide most households will survive on 150mbps. Few 4k streams are as far as most people’s connections get stressed.

    1. anonymous says:

      Yup. You’d think it were needed when, to this day, virtually no-one that can receive gigabit buys it and the majority are on sub-150.

    2. Buggerlugz says:

      The majority are on sub 50Mbps.

  8. Disgusted of Dankshire says:

    @anonymous
    Councils paid for premises that received over 24 or 30 depending on the contract. Openreach contracted to deliver this to a certain number of premises and as far as I’m aware achieved this through all contracts.

    Mine is less than 24Mbs, due to the line length and postcode lottery approach of the roll-out.
    I would love to see the contract, but told it is ‘confidential’, so I say that public money was miss-spent (the norm these days)

    So me and many others are subsidising those, who no fault of them I hasten to add, getting over 24Mbs.

    1. anonymous says:

      No public money would have been provided for you if your speeds came in under the contract. The contracts were based on a template and subsidy provided by homes uplifted above 24 or 30. If a cabinet covered 200 properties and 40 of them are too far away to hit superfast only the other 160 get subsidised.

      Even if you’d looked at the contract I’m not sure what you’re hoping to see there. There won’t be much granularity there to try and maximise coverage.

      Many local authorities have agreed extension programmes partly to serve those like you that need FTTP due to line length.

      On the last topic those of us in urban areas covered by commercial rollout subsidised the programme for no benefit of ours, and pay more on various bills as part of socialising utility costs. That’s life.

  9. Disgusted of Dankshire says:

    @anonymous
    re Many local authorities have agreed extension programmes partly to serve those like you that need FTTP due to line length.

    Unfortunately not in Dankshire. We may get FTTP in the future, but I doubt it will happen by 2025.

  10. Paul M says:

    Here in a village just west of Cambridge, we could have claimed a £1300 voucher per household and more than double that for business premises.. and of 155 properties eligible only 9 signed up, even though it’s free investment in their properties (in a middle-income village with high levels of house ownership).

    so even if the government are willing to throw money at the problem you can’t even get people to take an interest.

    Those properties are on FTTC with many getting just sufficient speed to stream iplayer.. and I guess that’s the problem, it simply isn’t bad enough.

    Most properties are 50 years or older. If BT’s income on a phone line is, say, £10/month, then over those 50 years they’ve had £6000 which could have been invested in fibre, instead of leaving the copper to rot away.

    1. anonymous says:

      Were BT not providing people phone services, repairing faults, etc, over this 50 year period?

      The MPF LLU pricing gives a better idea of the actual costs of the copper.

    2. GaryH says:

      Nope, anonymous they have no operating costs. 90,0000 staff work for free and the network runs on rainbows and unicorn farts.

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