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September 7, 2023
More than half of UK homes now have full fibre broadband coverage, while access to Gigabit services in general is on the up, according to new data published by Ofcom on Thursday.
But while the UK telecoms regulator is upbeat on progress in its latest connectivity report, fibre growth slowed in the first few months of 2023 and there is a serious question mark over government targets on Gigabit broadband.
Full fibre coverage for the UK as a whole passed the halfway mark earlier this year, the most recent update to Ofcom’s regular Connected Nations report shows. Fibre coverage reached 52% in May, or 15.4 million homes, up from 48% in January, the regulator said.
That four percentage point hike is to be cheered, of course. But it’s worth noting that Ofcom’s figures for January showed growth of six percentage points over four months, so the market has slowed a little. Nonetheless, we’re looking at a 15-point increase over a year, and that’s to be applauded.
The growth was driven “predominantly through deployments by the larger fibre infrastructure operators,” Ofcom noted, but added that their efforts were supported by a number of smaller regional and community-based players across the UK. Indeed, you could say that that influx of smaller fibre builders in recent years has kicked some of the big guns into life, so everyone’s playing their part here.
There is some regional disparity in the UK. At the top end of the market – in coverage terms not geographically – Northern Ireland is already at 90%, so growth there has understandably been slower than elsewhere, the market recording a one percentage point uptick since the start of the year. Meanwhile Scotland lags slightly at 49% coverage and growth is one point below the market average, so there’s clearly more work for network operators to do there.
Speaking of work to be done, the overall market for Gigabit-capable broadband is not exactly where it should be.
The number of homes able to get Gigabit-capable broadband, should they so desire, stands at almost 22.4 million, or 75% of the total, up from 21.9 million and 73% at the start of the year, driven by fibre rollout, Ofcom said. But while it highlights the “rapid pace” of growth in the market, it’s starting to look like it might not be fast enough.
“While three quarters of UK households are now able to get gigabit speeds, the current rate of progress suggests that the target of reaching 85% of homes by 2025 will not be met,” warned Peter Ames, broadband expert at UK price comparison site Broadband Genie.
“Project Gigabit was originally billed as a ‘rocket boost; to the nation’s broadband when launched by Boris Johnson two years ago,” Ames said. “Worryingly, the target is now described as an ambition by the regulator, rather than a commitment.”
This could be simply a case of poor choice of wording from Ofcom, but given how heavily scrutinised these sorts of documents tend to be before making it to the public eye, Ames might well have cause for concern.
While he welcomes the growth in full fibre in the UK, Ames notes that “more work must be done” to bring those without a decent broadband service up to speed.
“With our growing digital demands, the 10Mb speed currently defined as ‘decent’ is no longer fit for purpose and superfast downloads of at least 30Mb should become the new minimum.” he said. “This would also put pressure on the industry to prioritise the areas of the country currently unable to get these speeds.”
It’s a fair point. If network rollout doesn’t happen quickly enough, it stands to reason that national benchmarks on acceptable levels of service will cease to be relevant, no matter how much the regulator or any other government body decides to dress up the figures.
Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.
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