UK still trailing on full-fibre broadband despite leading Europe on 5G

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Nine-out-of-ten Brits have used at least one streaming service in the past year, according to subscription comparison website, as traditional broadcasters rely ever more heavily on broadband to deliver their content and keep pace. Since the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, millions have also switched partly or fully to working from home, making a fast, reliable, and secure internet connection vital for both work and leisure. Yet, the latest international comparison by communications regulator Ofcom shows the UK is lagging in terms of access to the best broadband hookups, but is ahead in the realm of 5G mobile.

According to the International Broadband Scorecard 2022 released by Ofcom earlier this month, 32 percent of UK households lived in areas served by the latest full-fibre technology at the end of last year.

However, the majority of internet users (60 percent) were found to be served by slower fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) connections – using a mix of fibre-optic cables and copper lines – while just seven percent had adopted full-fibre.

The Scorecard compared the UK to a group of ten peer countries: the US, Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, South Korea, China, India, and Singapore. 

In terms of full-fibre coverage, the UK ranked ninth, ahead of only Germany (15 percent) and India (12 percent). In terms of the distribution of broadband connections by technology, the UK came last for full-fibre.

Improving the quality of the UK’s broadband infrastructure has been recognised as a key objective by successive governments in recent years, not least because of the amount Britons use the internet.

The Ofcom data revealed people in the UK tended to use more data than any other country in the study, at 183.63GB per person each month on average – ahead of the US (171.9GB) and South Korea (169.0GB).

Industry jargon deems full-fibre connections to be ultrafast: capable of delivering download speeds of up to one gigabit per second (1000 megabits per second) – fast enough to download a high-definition film in under a minute.

The Government claims that by the end of 2022, 70 percent of UK households had the opportunity to install a gigabit-capable connection. Launched in the spring, Project Gigabit aims to raise this threshold to over 99 percent by 2030, at a cost of £5billion.

These ambitious roll-out targets are countered by low take-up, which could be a reflection of the relatively high cost of upgrading. The Scorecard found the UK to have the second-most expensive high-speed broadband and landline bundles among the group – behind only the US with an average monthly cost of £53.82.

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Ernest Doku, a telecommunications expert at comparison service, commenting on the latest Ofcom figures, said: “When it comes to the provision of top speeds we should be ambitious. While broadband deals advertised above 300Mbps are increasing, Ofcom’s data on other countries shows that we are a backmarker compared with many of our European and international rivals when it comes to the proportion of households benefiting from the quickest packages.”

As a result, the UK continues to trail countries around the world when it comes to fixed broadband internet speeds. According to the November 2022 Speedtest Global Index, the median download speed in the UK – the most representative metric of overall internet speed – was 73.21Mbps.

Although this figure has almost doubled in the past four years – from the 37Mbps recorded in November 2018 – it means the UK ranks 55th in the world, behind Jordan (74.46Mbps) and only just ahead of Latvia (72.40Mbps). 

Top of the list in November was Chile (216.46Mbps) – almost three times faster than the UK – followed by China (215.48Mbps) and Singapore (214.23Mbps). 

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On the other hand, the UK’s 5G mobile infrastructure is among the best in the world. The latest Connected Nations report from Ofcom says roughly seven-in-ten UK homes now get 5G reception from at least one mobile operator, up from just half a year ago.

The Scorecard found that the UK has more 5G mobile plans per 100 inhabitants than any European peer at 31.9 – well ahead of Spain (6.9), Germany (5.1), Italy (5.0) and France (4.6). 

The UK also had a higher proportion of 5G connections among all mobile subscriptions (25.6 percent) than anywhere else save South Korea (28.7 percent).

However, Mr Doku added: “Ofcom declares that 5G is available in 70 percent of homes, but ignores that most people have the most need for faster mobile data when they are away from their home broadband connection.

“Less than half of 5G users say they have experienced improvements in speed or reliability and one-in-six even say that it is ‘overhyped’ – so availability doesn’t mean much if the reported benefits are minimal.”

Behind the headline figures, separate research by Uswitch also found that the UK is being held back by huge disparities in connection speed between neighbourhoods in the same area.

Based on thousands of speed tests, the study found Glasgow to be the most unequal city for broadband speeds in the UK – the fastest area of the city achieving speeds 866 times quicker than the slowest.

Glasgow’s highest average download speed was found to be 840.4Mbps in the Milton district, yet speeds of only 0.97Mbps were recorded just four miles away in the suburb of Bearsden.

The next-widest broadband divide was found in Nottingham – with its top recorded speed 689 times faster than the slowest 1.16Mbps connection – followed by Cardiff, London, and Newcastle.

Of all UK cities, the highest download speed was found in Edinburgh, at 840.6Mbps, in the northern Forth ward.

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