The superfast broadband roll-outs have polarised opinions and where as with previous ADSL roll-outs things started to quieten down once coverage got above 80% the volume of complaints about not rolling out fast enough or the wrong choice of technology for an area appears to be actually increasing for the roll-out of superfast speeds. So we thought given that our figures show the UK hitting 90% overall we would share some of our data on how the roll-out has or has not changed things for rural areas of the UK.
Before we share any actual coverage figures, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) data is usually quoted as 78% to 80% of the UK being classified as urban and the remainder being rural. We have used the ONS classification of census output areas to arrive at the results in this blog and a very important graphic is the one illustrating the distribution of premises. Also in this blog where we talk about superfast we are using the stricter EU 30 Mbps and faster definition.
Of course for anyone reading this where the commercial or BDUK roll-outs have not helped them the figures will seem irrelevant and incredibly inaccurate, but in an arena where emotion rather than data seems to rule we are working hard to get more data into the public domain and at a pace that means decision makers can very quickly see the results.
So what has changed? It turns out an awful lot, back in December 2010 the commercial roll-out from Openreach was just a year old and thus the majority of the coverage was down to Virgin Media cable, but even so 15.5% of rural Great Britain had a superfast option, trailing GB Urban by a large margin with its 66.1% coverage. 2010 was a pivotal year as the initial funding for the BDUK project was announced and a range of speeches made about UK broadband targets, some of which people are convinced promised to deal with the worst 10% rather than what has happened which is that the roll-outs have expanded from the edges of the commercial roll-out (largely). Also in earlier versions of BDUK websites the BDUK project was often called a rural broadband project and still tends to be accompanied in the press by pictures of sheep in a field, or a lone person with a laptop in a wheat field.
So the rural chunk of the UK representing 23% of UK premises in 6 years has gone from 15.5% superfast coverage to 72% rural coverage, which seems pretty good progress unless you are still waiting. The level of urban coverage has not remained static rising from 66.1% to 95.3% as there has been years of commercially funded roll-out too and in places like London there is a new surge of cabinets going live, plus some commercial cabinets put on hold to concentrate on BDUK work in other parts of the UK are also going live at last.
A major criticism of the BDUK roll-out has been that VDSL2 does not deliver enough performance in rural areas, and we plan to look at this in a lot more depth with an analysis of speed test results, that will go beyond the usual decile, quartile, median and mean speeds, but look at the speeds people are recording at various distances from the cabinet. We have done some small reviews for rural cabinet areas and so far from the limited sampling the speed vs distance model used in our coverage estimates does stand up to scrutiny, but we will automate this analysis so we can compare much larger numbers than is possible by hand. For now the quick method is to remove the superfast speed qualifier and see what difference that makes.
So here is the evidence, of how badly or not VDSL2 performs in rural areas, 84.3% have something ‘fibre’ based available to them, but this drops to 72% once you use a 30 Mbps qualifier. For urban areas the drop is much smaller 96.2% down to 95.3%, this is down to cabinets being more densely packed. So yes in rural areas more people do not get superfast broadband when a cabinet is given VDSL2 but it is a long way from being as bad as we have seen some say who claim no one gets superfast broadband from VDSL2 in rural areas. For BDUK gap-funded cabinets many projects only pay the gap-funding based on the number of premises that will get superfast so deploying a technology which receives zero subsidy would make no sense at all. Of course if you’re one of those who has seen a cabinet go live and are unable to order due to distance one can understand the complaint.
It will be interesting to see how things continue to change in the next 18 months or so, and with many of the phase 1 BDUK projects working on infill as well as the extension projects we are seeing increasing amounts of FTTP deployed, so the availability of FTTP in rural areas may increase further, making it proportionally a better place to search for a property with FTTP if you are able to re-locate.
In absolute numbers of premises the GB Urban footprint does have more FTTP available to it, but hamlets where the surrounding area is sparsely populated are where you are most likely to find incumbent based FTTP.
The UK broadband scene has moved on rapidly and many campaigners are now saying superfast is passé so we will end on showing you what the current ultrafast picture looks like. We are using a 100 Mbps definition here, but that could just as easily be 200 Mbps since all the services meet that definition, Ofcom has elected for a 300 Mbps definition, but even there with 300 Mbps available to people who pester Virgin Media appropriately we can continue to include cable services.
The question for campaigners and politicians are seeking answers to is whether there is an actual need to spend public money on a subsidised roll-out of ultrafast broadband, or are services such as downloading digital games in minutes rather than hours and ultra HD streaming so critical to the UK economy that we cannot wait? Where this probably matters most is the final 5% of the UK and how the Universal Service Obligation works, i.e. will technologies be deployed that just about meet the 10 Mbps target on a good day.
Update 20th April 2016
To help give people a better idea of the scale of any future work to increase superfast coverage and what has been done, in terms of the number of premises in Great Britain (Northern Ireland left out as ONS rural/urban definitions do not directly map. In Great Britain, the number of urban premises without access to superfast broadband (using the faster than 24 Mbps definition) has decreased from 3.85m at the end of 2012 to 0.94 million currently, in the rural part of the UK the change is 4.95m down to the current 1.72 million.