United Kingdom holds a strong position in superfast broadband

One of the European Unions most ambitious targets is to make sure that all its citizens can get access to superfast broadband at home, if they choose, by 2020. A new study by broadband specialists Point Topic shows the United Kingdom is now over 58% towards achieving that aim. This means that 58% of British homes can subscribe to superfast broadband services delivering at least 30Mbps (megabits per second) of bandwidth.

Although the United Kingdom is often accused of backwardness in broadband technology, particularly superfast, it is actually in a relatively strong position. Its superfast coverage is well above the European average and the UK is second only to Germany in the size of its superfast footprint, with 15.5m homes passed, almost 15% of the total in the European Union. But this position has been achieved on the basis of an extensive and modern cable TV network and a rapid rollout of VDSL, providing superfast speeds over the telephone network. The coverage of FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) in the UK remains negligible.

The report showing where the UK stands has been produced for DG Connect, the department of the European Commission which is responsible for its Digital Agenda strategy. The purpose of the Digital Agenda is to harness the internet and other digital technologies to drive sustainable economic growth. Neelie Kroes, the Commission vice-president responsible, wants to see 7 billion earmarked for EU investments in broadband to help reach Digital Agenda targets, which in turn is meant to draw in private funds of many times that amount.

This study gives us the best view so far of where action is needed on broadband coverage, says Neelie Kroes. It will help to guide decisions on where EU and private money can be invested to provide the best long-term return for taxpayers and investors such as pension funds.

Called Broadband Coverage in Europe in 2011, the new study shows that 100% of the homes in the United Kingdom can now get basic broadband, meaning services offering at least 144kbps (kilobits per second), if they want to subscribe. Over 58% can already get superfast broadband, also known as NGA, for Next Generation Access. Looking at the 29 study countries as a whole (all 27 members of the EU, plus Norway and Iceland), 96% can already get basic broadband and over 50% – half way to the digital heaven target for 2020 – can get superfast.

Basic broadband is fairly widespread now, only three EU countries have less than 90% coverage. But there are huge variations in superfast availability both internationally and within countries. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the map shows that 59 areas, mostly cities, have NGA coverage over 65%. The highest coverage of all is in provincial cities where there is an extensive cable network, delivering Docsis 3, rather than in the capital as in mpst countries. VDSL is also starting to roll out and reach beyond the cable areas. Thus some 33 areas, generally less urbanised, have at least 35% NGA coverage. Another 23 more rural areas, mostly in England and Scotland, have something although it may be only a few percent. Finally 18 areas, mostly in Scotland and Wales, have no superfast broadband availability as yet. Northern Ireland is a special case. Although it is mostly rural, a state-funded scheme has rolled out VDSL services to cover almost the whole province.

The study also shows how competing technologies are sharing out the superfast broadband market as illustrated on the chart. In the UK, Docsis 3 is the most important superfast technology with 46% coverage. This reflects the situation across Europe as a whole where Docsis 3 also leads on 37%. VDSL comes second in the UK and is also ahead of the European total on 26% against 21% for Europe as a whole. FTTP is far behind with only 0.2% coverage against an EU total of 12%.

When we add all these technologies together we have to take account of the overlap, explains Tim Johnson, who led the project as Point Topics Chief Analyst. This is how we get to superfast coverage of 58% in the United Kingdom. The problem is that the superfast operators compete to serve the richer and more densely populated areas in each country, leaving others underserved. Hopefully this project will give policy-makers some of the information they need to start addressing that problem, says Johnson.

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