The UK broadband landscape is one that evokes a lot of emotion and given some of the sweeping statements and press coverage of previous years where almost every story about the BDUK project featured stock photo fluffy sheep in a field or a person standing with a laptop in field you can almost forgive people who thought the phase 1 BDUK process was explicitly targeting rural areas. The reality with a 90% target and the modern value for money mantra was that some rural areas were going to be helped, but not all of them.
Those reading this blog who have yet to see any improvement in their broadband situation either from the BDUK process and the current BT contracts, or an alternate operator have our sympathy and while for these people it looks like nothing has changed, the data points to a lot happening just that until coverage reaches 100% there will always be those missing out. One aspect of the BDUK process and the BT contracts is also that there are campaigns being run that decry any achievements made as they don’t believe that speeds of 24 Mbps and faster were a worthy target speed.
So onto the data and the first thing to do is look at the actual demographics of UK premises. The generally quoted quick stat is that 80% of UK premises are in urban areas and the chart pretty much agrees, perhaps no surprise given that the data behind it is based on official census definitions.
The different proportions are key to interpreting the coverage levels and yes while GB Village and Hamlets do fair a lot worse than the urban areas they are actually doing a lot better than the almost zero coverage of a couple of years ago.
People can of course check how coverage has changed in their part of the UK using our checker which tracks roll-outs, speed test results and the availability of a great many alternate providers.
With the UK just 1.2% behind the goal of 90% superfast coverage at this time, it will be interesting to see how the coverage bar chart changes, since 1.2% across the whole UK when translated to GB villages has the potential to raise the coverage level significantly. With our updating of the checker we see weekly exchange only line areas that acquire the option of VDSL2, some business parks getting FTTP and for those project areas towards the end of their phase 1 roll-out even additional VDSL2 cabinets to serve clusters of around 50 premises too far from an existing VDSL2 cabinet.
Fibre to the Home or Premises is seen as the current future proof gold standard of broadband and there are debates to be had over whether GPON is a dead-end and point to point fibre is the true FTTH solution, and when you look at where Openreach and KC have deployed FTTH in the UK the results may surprise some people.
The coverage of FTTH by the two incumbents in the UK is low, but it will surprise many to see hamlets and villages sitting at the top of the table, part of this is down to the roll-out in Cornwall where 3 out of 10 connections are native FTTP based, but in other parts of the UK we see FTTP appearing in small clusters, some of this is long lines as part of the BDUK projects, some is for industrial parks and some is for new build premises.
Of course some say that VDSL2 and the definition of superfast at 24 Mbps (Westminster) or 30 Mbps (EU) and faster are too slow for modern use of the Internet, and therefore we are tracking availability of ultrafast broadband options. We include any provider with an ultrafast service that offers 100 Mbps or faster speeds though it could as easily be 200 Mbps or faster if we wanted and the figures would not change. The ultrafast figures include a wider range of providers such as Gigaclear, Hyperoptic, B4RN, IFNL with the big one being Virgin Media.
No one has set an actual target for ultrafast coverage yet, but with some of the phase 2 BDUK contracts going to Gigaclear, and other examples like West Oxfordshire District council we expect to see things change a fair amount between now and 2017. The Virgin Media Project Lightning expansion is underway and this is likely to have a significant impact on the fringe areas of towns. Then there is the unknown of what CityFibre/Sky/TalkTalk will achieve, comments of 10 million homes passed are mentioned but nothing concrete, and then there is whatever Openreach will do with G.fast and its premium fibre on demand service when it eventually launches. It is possible the Ofcom review of how to handle Openreach may have an impact on the plans, both negative and positive.
We know some people do not trust the availability statistics no matter how much work goes into producing them, hence our two pronged approaching of analysing the masses of speed test data we have and the above chart plots the changing speed picture across Great Britain. Yes there is a divide and yes urban areas are faster than the rural ones, but the trend over the long term is for improvement, and the link between levels of superfast coverage and mean download speed is shown as we’ve attached the coverage level at 30 Mbps or faster to each line.
Looking at Great Britain again we can filter our speed test results based on those using just Openreach FTTC and the above chart shows that while sparsely populated and hamlets only started to show enough FTTC tests to appear on our chart in 2013 the range of the mean observed speeds in Q4 2015 was just 27.1 Mbps to 29.8 Mbps. This seems to rip apart the idea that in rural areas FTTC is not delivering speeds comparable to the urban areas and remember that speed test results will always be lower than the theoretical speed since people have a tendency to buy the cheapest product e.g. our observations of Hyperoptic suggest that only 20% buy the Gigabit service, and 20% opt for the 20 Meg down (1 Meg up) product. On Gigaclear just 6% appear to be using the fastest 1000 Mbps service. This means that even though people have the option of an up to 76 Mbps and speed estimates above 40 Mbps an awful lot of people will pick the up to 38 Mbps, to save £5 to £10 per month.
Of course what the speed test results are not telling us is those who are not able to order a VDSL2 based service at all due to the distance from the cabinet, but the coverage data will tell us if this is a major problem.
2016 should hopefully bring us some clarity on how the Universal Service Obligation is going to work and we may get a little more certainty on what will happen to Openreach and this may or may not trigger firms like CityFibre to increase their FTTH roll-out to residential areas.