Broadband in the UK: Super-Fast, Faster, Fastest?

Earlier this summer, the Government announced that superfast broadband had been extended to more than 1 million homes and businesses across the UK as part of its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme, and that it was on course to extend superfast broadband to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017. This accompanied the publication of the latest set of data on the BDUK programme by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on 7 August 2014, which also posted a Youtube video highlighting this landmark.

So, what is the Government doing about reaching that final 5% of homes and businesses in the “hardest to reach places” and how does the UK’s superfast broadband coverage compare with Europe and the rest of the world?

Superfast broadband policy

The Government’s main broadband commitments were first announced by Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Olympics and Sport on 8 June 2010. They were then followed up in more detail in a broadband strategy – Britain’s superfast broadband future – in December 2010.

This strategy set the Government’s ambition and allocated £530 million: to provide everyone in the UK with access to broadband with a download speed of at least 2 megabits per second (Mbps) and to bring ‘superfast broadband’ (at least 24Mbps) to 90% of UK homes and businesses. Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), a team within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), was also established to manage the delivery of this strategy and the roll-out of broadband in rural areas.

Later, in 2013, the Government increased its ambition, allocating an additional £250 million to provide 95% of the UK with ‘superfast broadband’ by 2017. The Government is also exploring different approaches to delivering superfast broadband to the remaining hardest to reach areas – namely, remote and rural areas.

BDUK and Broadband in remote and rural areas

BDUK has allocated funding to each local authority in England, while funding has also been allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The individual projects are the responsibility of local authorities and the Devolved Administrations, as set out in BDUK’s delivery model.

In England each county council or local enterprise partnership leads broadband roll-out in their area, drawing up an effective delivery plan, and matching the Government’s investment with European, their own or private funds. BT is the only company to have been awarded a delivery contract. The Public Accounts Committee published its report on the Government’s rural broadband programme in September 2013, where Chair of the Committee, Margaret Hodge, raised concerns over the Department’s management of its superfast broadband roll out and BT’s “quasi-monopolistic” position.

Part of the Government’s commitment to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015, is to ensure that rural, as well as urban areas, are provided with good online access. BDUK has responsibility for delivering the rural broadband programme, and in 2011, the Government announced funding worth up to £20 million for a new Rural Community Broadband Fund. This programme has now closed. In its place, the Government recently invited applicants to a new £10m innovation fund designed to explore ways to take superfast broadband to the hardest to reach places.

The eight shortlisted pilots will explore how to expand coverage in remote areas, using fixed wireless and satellite technologies, a social investment financial model and an operating model which aggregates small rural networks.

How does the UK compare internationally? 

Firstly, it is important to point out that the UK’s definition of superfast broadband is set at speeds of at least 24Mbps. This is slower than the EU’s definition, as outlined in its Digital Agenda for Europe, which is set at speeds of 30 Mbps or above.

Ofcom – the communications industry regulator – publishes data on four headline indicators: coverage and take-up; speed; price; and choice. These four indicators can be used to compare the UK’s broadband network relative to those in other EU countries. This scorecard approach was proposed by BDUK.

In Ofcom’s most recently published figures, when compared with its neighbours in the EU (France, Germany, Italy and Spain), the UK comes out top for superfast, standard and mobile broadband coverage, with 83 households per 100 connected to broadband.

Worldwide comparisons can be made by looking at the World Bank’s Broadband Strategies Toolkit.  This shows that the UK, whilst performing strongly in comparison to its neighbours in the EU, has set lower ambitions than:

  • Australia – who are targeting superfast broadband speeds at up to 100 Mbps in 93% of homes, schools and businesses by 2021;
  • Finland – who are targeting a baseline speed of 100 Mbps, by 2015; and
  • South Korea – who are aiming to offer its citizens a 1Gbps connection by 2017.

Superfast, not the fastest

There are a number of factors that affect the development of broadband networks, such as geography, population size and density, and legacy infrastructure, which differ significantly country-to-country.

While the UK performs well in the European context, it starts to look less ambitious in a global one. Recently, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) called on the Government, in cooperation with industry, to commit to delivering minimum speeds of 10 Mbps for all business premises in the UK by 2018–19, regardless of location. John Allan, FSB’s National Chairman, said:

The fact that we have around 45,000 businesses still on dial up is unacceptable and many more throughout the country, even in London, are receiving poor service. Evidence from our members shows this clearly is a problem affecting all corners of the UK, rural areas and cities alike.

The Government in its press release championing its million household milestone also “recognised that there is still more to do.”

Author: David Hirst