Superfast and Ultrafast Broadband Rollouts
Superfast broadband coverage across the UK continues to increase and improve. Ofcom recently highlighted that the availability of superfast broadband, which they define as providing a minimum 30Mbit/s download speed, had increased to 93% of UK premises (27.2 million).
The UK Government defines superfast broadband as providing a minimum 24Mbit/s download speed. Coverage of broadband with these speeds was 95% of UK premises in January 2018.
The number of premises that cannot get decent broadband has fallen by almost 150,000. Around 925,000 UK premises cannot get broadband with a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s and an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s, which is the specification for the UK Government’s proposed broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO). There has been a steady reduction in the number of UK properties that cannot get decent broadband in recent years, falling from 1.6 million (6%) in May 2016 to 1.1 million (4%) a year later and downwards to 925,000 (3%) as of January 2018.
Over one million homes can now get full-fibre connections. While there has been progress in making superfast services available to over nine out of ten properties, greater investment is needed to build full-fibre networks. These networks are capable of delivering speeds in excess of 1Gbit/s, are more reliable than copper-based networks and can give more consistent performance with speeds closer to those advertised.
A number of network operators have announced plans to extend their full-fibre networks and Ofcom recently announced measures to further increase investment in this future-proof form of broadband. As of January 2018 coverage had increased further, with around 1.2 million (4%) UK premises able to receive full-fibre services.
The coverage of ultrafast services, with a download speed of at least 300Mbit/s, has also increased. 13.2 million UK premises (45%) can now receive these services, up from 10.6 million (36%) in May 2017. Prior to this point, ultrafast coverage was significantly lower at around 2% of UK premises.
Broadband Universal Service Obligation
In March 2018, the UK Government decided, by way of a legislative order, to introduce the USO to ensure people in the UK have the right to request a decent broadband connection.
Under the USO legislation, homes and businesses will be able to request a connection up to a cost threshold of £3,400. For the most expensive to reach properties where the costs of providing a USO connection exceed this amount, consumers will need to consider other options.
Ofcom is now responsible for implementing the USO and will consult in September 2018 on procedural regulations setting out how they propose to designate Universal Service Provider(s) once they have considered responses to a recent request for expressions of interest in serving as Universal Service Provider for broadband. They anticipate making designation regulations later this year and will also be putting forward proposals for who should be designated as the Universal Service Provider(s) and the Universal Service Conditions to which they should comply. They expect to make their final decisions by Summer 2019.
In December 2017 Ofcom changed the way they measure mobile coverage to reflect the actual experience of mobile users. Expectation of mobile services is changing as people become more dependent on mobile services and need to access them wherever they are - indoors, outdoors or on the move. At the same time the devices they use to access mobile services have changed, with increasing take-up of smartphones and tablets, which require stronger signals than older, simpler phones.
Outdoor coverage has improved this year, but only three quarters of the UK has telephone call coverage from all operators. 76% of the UK’s geographic area is now covered by all operators for telephone calls, up from 70% in June 2017 and 63% a year earlier. Outdoor access to data services has also increased; 70% of the UK’s geographic area now has a mobile data service from all four operators, up from 63% in June 2017 and 52% in June 2016.
92% of UK premises have indoor telephone call coverage from all four mobile networks, EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone, up from 90% in June 2017 and 85% in June 2016. The coverage of data services from all operators has also improved slightly, rising from 80% of UK premises in June 2016, to 85% in June 2017 to the current figure of 88% of UK premises.
75% of the UK’s A and B roads are now covered by all operators for telephone calls, an increase from 68% in June 2017 and 56% in 2016. On the remaining 25% of roads there will be coverage by fewer than four operators, which means it make be harder to make or receive a telephone call. In the event of an accident or incident, emergency calls can be made on any available mobile network. Only 3% of the UK’s A and B roads now have no coverage for telephone calls from any operator at all and, in these locations, emergency calls using a mobile phone are unlikely to be successful. This figure has reduced from 5% in June 2017.
The Race to 5G
All the different UK networks are announcing their plans for 5G trials, ahead of a full launch over the next few years. O2 are turning the O2 Arena into a 5G test hub, EE are putting together a 5G network in central London, and Three has confirmed it's trialling the technology next year. Vodafone has revealed some of its own plans, including a seven city 5G trial.
We’re still a couple of years away from actually being able to get our hands on 5G handsets, but we’re rapidly progressing towards that point. The international standards organisation 3GPP has defined the ‘Release 15’ 5G standard, which means everyone now has a shared goal for which technology to implement.
In practice, this next generation of mobile networks will lead to much faster mobile speeds, theoretically raising them to be able to deliver over 1Gbps. Network latency should also be reduced down to a theoretical 1ms from 45ms on 4G.
Exact speeds will vary based on which technology ends up being implemented. Samsung says it’s managed to achieve 7.5Gbps, while Nokia claims a more impressive 10Gbps. There’s also Huawei, which has managed 3.6Gbps.
When you compare that to the best speeds in the UK then we could be talking about a 12-fold speed increase. Actual performance will vary as anyone who’s ever used a 4G phone can attest, you’re never going to get the full 300Mbps that the standard is technically capable of due to a combination of signal strength and the amount of load on the network.
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