Broadband for all

julia kukiewicz
By Julia Kukiewicz

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100% broadband coverage, otherwise known as "broadband for all" and, more recently, "superfast broadband for all", has long been an ambition of the UK's Government and regulators.

How are we doing?

Households with broadband

According to the most recent Ofcom figures, around 99% of households can access fixed line broadband in the UK.

The rest are in "potential broadband notspots", usually because they're too far away from the exchange to receive an ADSL service.

It could be that this small minority are covered in other ways - by mobile or satellite broadband or through a community WiMax project - but there's no way to know for sure.

Households with 2Mb+ broadband

Around 99% of UK premises can now access what the Government still define as "basic broadband" of 2Mb.

The Government had aimed for universal speeds of at least 2Mb by the end of 2015, but with the deadline fast approaching in autumn of that year, they began running a couple of pilot satellite broadband subsidy schemes; a few months later, in December 2015 they extended the scheme nationwide.

That enabled them to say that everyone in the UK had access to at least 2Mb broadband (although technically they always had).

In addition, about 95% of households can now access Ofcom's definition of "basic" broadband - of at least 10Mb - up from 85% the .

Having been able to declare on a technicality that it's job done as far as 2Mb is concerned, during 2016 the Government all but committed to raising the Universal Service Obligation to 10Mb by 2020 - although as many of those responding to a Defra consultation early in 2015 pointed out, that could be hideously outdated by then.

Households with superfast broadband

On top of that, around 90% of UK premises can access superfast broadband services - although the definition of superfast varies tremendously - skip ahead to see what we mean.

Ofcom are concerned that take-up appears to be tailing off, although that seems to depend on how we look at the statistics.

In 2016, with about 90% of the UK capable of getting superfast fibre, 31% of premises actually had a superfast package - more than one in three. In 2013, when around 73% of us could get it, only 16% bothered - equivalent to two in every nine fibre enabled buildings.

Compared with Europe

These figures generally put the UK on a par with comparable EU nations.

The EU's Digital Agenda project wants to see speeds of at least 30Mb for 100% of European households by 2020, with at least half able to get at least 100Mb by the same deadline - rising to 100% with at least 100Mb by 2025.

According to European Commission data for the period until the end of 2015, 18 of 31 European Union countries have fixed broadband coverage of at least 97.2% and 27 of the 31 have coverage of more than 90% of households.

It's worth bearing in mind the difference between having access, and having decent access: the EU considered the UK to have 100% fixed coverage by the end of 2015, but as we hope is plain from above, that doesn't mean everyone has a usable connection.

At the same time, access to superfast broadband technologies had spread to 71% of households across Europe, with Malta managing 100% coverage, and Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Lithuania all reaching more than 95%, with Denmark very close behind.

The UK is lagging in comparison - but not as much as France, Greece, and Italy, none of whom had reached 50% coverage by the end of 2015.

Why 'broadband for all'?

In the UK, the drive for universal service seems only patriotic: this is national infrastructure after all, so everyone should have access, just as they do to phone lines.

Advocates of universal coverage like to compare broadband to other big infrastructure projects.

"In the 19th century we built the railways," George Osborne, the then-Shadow Chancellor, commented in early 2010. "In the 20th century we built the motorways. In the 21st century, let's build the superfast broadband network that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Britain."

By the end of the year, however, he was finding building the digital railways easier said than done.

"Broadband helps more people, provides more benefits per pound and is greener than even the most modern railway," scolded Tim Johnson, Chief Analyst at Point Topic. "George Osborne needs to shave another billion or so out of other investment programmes to give us a truly modern economy."

That's the universal service problem in a nutshell.

It's a noble aim, but the cost of supplying the most hard-to-reach premises is high considering the number of people that will actually benefit.

And Osborne and Johnson weren't only talking about universal service there. As we continue to struggle to get some premises connected at all, they and others are clamouring for better service.

In early 2015, Defra agreed with Ofcom that the minimum acceptable broadband speed should already be 10Mb; Defra also want the "last 5%" of premises slated for superfast coverage to become the priority.

In addition, there's an argument that infrastructure is a fairly poor barometer of a country's overall digital health. It's not lack of cables, but lack of skills and resources that cause the most digital exclusion - an argument we look at further here.

Meeting the 2Mb for all target

In 2009, the Government's Digital Britain report set out a Universal Service Commitment of 2Mb broadband to all UK households.

In 2010, the Government pushed back their own target to deliver broadband of 2Mb to all UK citizens from 2012 to 2015 - and as we noted above, that's been achieved only by means of a technicality.

The then-Communications Minister Ed Vaizey noted at the time that estimates of the cost to deliver even basic broadband to all UK residents had doubled, and could well continue to rise.

"Discussions with industry indicate that the shortfall may be even greater," said Mr Vaizey.

The £530 million earmarked for phase one of the Government's superfast broadband roll-out was "not nearly enough", analysts Point Topic said at the time.

They estimated that more than six million households in the UK would need subsidising in order to access superfast broadband services economically.

In comparison, at that point, the French Government were proposing to spend €660 million every year for the next 15 years to deliver 100% superfast fibre broadband coverage.

That's more than the UK Government proposed to hand out during the entire Spending Review period. In addition, the French are planning on another €200 million a year from local Government and European funds.

Bearing that in mind, even the extra £260 million of funding pledged for Phases Two and Three of the UK's programme seemed a little stingy.

In December 2016, however, the Government announced £440 million more in funding for Phase Three - although £292 million of that is recycled funding, having been clawed back from BT once fibre take-up in Phase One areas reached a certain point, and the other £150 million has come from savings made during previous stages.

Some poorer rural areas have also benefited from EU funding, and more than £300 million for the overall BDUK project has come from the BBC licence fee.

Superfast for all?

Superfast is defined by Ofcom and the European Digital Agenda as broadband capable of speeds of 30Mb or more.

In general, that means fibre of varying kinds, as ADSL2+ is only notionally capable of up to 24Mb. Meanwhile 4G and 4G+ mobile broadband may be capable of doing the job, but their coverage is still limited and reliability isn't good enough as yet.

Superfast has also been defined as "above 24Mb", "above 15Mb" (see below) and in even more vague terms by MPs.

Just look at this brave statement made by Mr Vaizey in 2010:

"Superfast broadband means broadband of sufficient speed and quality to deliver the services that will lead to Britain having the best broadband network in Europe."

Ah, right.

Superfast coverage faces the same problem as broadband coverage in general, in that supplying urban areas is fairly simple and economic for private providers, but there's a big gap when it comes to more rural areas.

A 2010 Government report found that next generation broadband networks were likely to reach just 70% of the UK population by 2017 if driven purely by the market.

Indeed, the largest non-national provider, TalkTalk, said in 2014 that they weren't going to extend their network to any more exchanges, because those remaining serve too few people to justify the cost.

So that extra 30% has required extra investment and policies aimed at encouraging private companies to invest - hence BDUK and the three-phase Superfast Broadband Rollout.

The decision to chuck a load of money at "broadband cities" also angered many of those dedicated to universal superfast.

Lowering the standard

There has in fact been significant investment in this area, though it has often seemed to aim low.

In July 2011, for example, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the body in charge of the original £790 million set aside for delivering next generation access, released a tendering document that said that for suppliers to be able to access subsidy money, any "superfast" broadband infrastructure would need to deliver speeds of at least 15Mb.

That minimum was far below the Government's own definition of superfast broadband which was a connection of at least 24Mb - notionally possible with the fastest ADSL2+ connection in perfect conditions but ideally requiring fibre.

Another concern is the gulf between the EU Digital Agenda's target of universal connections of 30Mb by 2020 and the UK Government's USO target of just 10Mb by the same time.

With Brexit scheduled to take place in 2019, the UK could find itself excused from the more rigorous target - and the benefits that come with universal access to truly superfast broadband for all.