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UK broadband update December 2015: Ofcom's Connected Nations report

Thursday, December 10, 2015 - 14:14

This month Ofcom published its 2015 Connected Nations report (press release here), previously titled the Ofcom Infrastructure Report (details of the 2014 report here and here).

The Connected Nations report provides a detailed overview of the UK’s communications infrastructure and “progress towards becoming genuinely connected nations.” The report’s focus is on residential and small and medium enterprise (SME) connectivity. The leased line infrastructures employed by larger businesses and organisations are not considered; these are investigated as part of Ofcom’s regular Business Connectivity Market Review (more details here).

Key findings – fixed broadband:

  • Superfast broadband services offering speeds of 30Mbit/s or more are now available to 24 million or 83% of UK premises.
  • Almost 8 million (27%) premises have now adopted superfast services, raising the overall average download speed for all connected premises to 28Mbit/s.
  • The average amount of data downloaded and uploaded by consumers has increased to 82GB, rising to 112GB for superfast connections. Ofcom estimates that about 65% of this data is video traffic, with more TV content being viewed via the internet than ever before, though linear broadcast TV remains the most important means of watching TV for the majority of people. Households with connections above 40Mbit/s consume significantly more data.
  • Ofcom continues to regard 10Mbit/s as the minimum speed now required by the typical household. The Government has announced its intention to consult on the establishment of a 10Mbit/s Universal Service Obligation (USO) early in 2016, and Ofcom will continue to work with the Government to ensure that this target is implemented effectively.
  • Around 2.4 million premises (8%) are unable to receive minimum 10Mbit/s speeds; around 1.5 million (or 48% of) premises in rural areas are affected by this.
  • For some consumers, the local infrastructure has been upgraded to provide superfast services, but for specific technical reasons (chiefly distance issues), their lines cannot receive superfast speeds. Around 2 million (or 7% of) UK premises are connected to upgraded networks but cannot currently receive download speeds of 30Mbit/s; on average, their download speeds are around 18Mbit/s. Many of the premises affected are in rural areas.
  • Some SMEs also cannot yet access superfast services; Ofcom estimate that by 2017, when 95% of all UK premises are likely to have superfast broadband, around 18% of SMEs (over 230,000) will still not have access to superfast services.
  • Ultrafast services are beginning to appear; Ofcom classifies such services as offering download speeds of 300Mbit/s or more and will continue to monitor the emergence of such services.

Key findings – mobile:

  • Coverage of 2G and 3G services is broadly unchanged since 2014, covering around 93% and 88% of UK premises respectively.
  • While many areas are served by voice and basic data services, some areas continue to experience poor mobile coverage. Levels of mobile coverage in rural areas continue to be lower than in urban areas. Indoor coverage in rural areas is particularly poor. For example, 72% of rural premises in the UK have voice call coverage from all networks outdoors; but only 31% of rural premises have the same level of coverage indoors.
  • Thirteen million or 46% of premises are now covered by 4G mobile services (outdoor coverage), covering most major cities and towns.
  • The rate of growth in mobile data use continues to outstrip that on fixed broadband networks; it grew by a factor of 64% over the past year. However, the volume of data carried over mobile networks is still a small proportion (around 1%) of data carried over all networks.
  • On average, each consumer uses around 870MB of data per month, an increase of 64% since 2014. In comparison, the annual increase in data use on fixed broadband networks is lower, at 41% (although the monthly volume of data used over fixed networks is significantly higher, at 82 GB per connection – approximately 100 times greater than on mobile networks).
  • Over 66% of the adult population now has a smartphone.
  • The number of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK has continued to increase; to around 45,000. The average amount of data consumed in a month on public Wi-Fi hotspots grew to almost 3.3PB (3.3 million GB) and represents almost 5% of that consumed on mobile networks.

Key findings – Internet services:

  • Transparency about ISPs’ traffic management (TM) practices has improved, and in general TM policies are less restrictive than previously. For fixed networks, TM policies are rarely invoked (more from Ofcom on TM here).
  • The use of content delivery networks (CDNs) by both fixed and mobile operators has increased over the past year; fixed operators use CDNs to deliver a larger proportion of their traffic than do mobile operators.
  • The proportion of traffic provided by the top content providers which have individual interconnection arrangements has also increased. For some fixed networks, the proportion of traffic delivered via the BBC, Google, Netflix, Akamai and Limelight can make up 60% or more of all interconnecting traffic. On mobile networks, the proportion is lower. This shows that the source of internet data is increasingly consolidating into a small number of providers.
  • However, increasingly, the direct connectivity provided via CDNs is not the route that much of the content served actually takes to the end-user. The role of content providers’ caching servers in ‘local’ delivery is increasing. Anecdotally, one fixed ISP has estimated that around 65% of the content downloaded by its customers is now served in this way.

Key findings – broadband performance:

  • Connection speeds alone provide an incomplete picture of broadband performance; factors such as data congestion in in-home broadband connections, the ISP’s network or the wider internet also contribute to overall performance. Ofcom has researched a new measurement method (more here) capable of assessing the effects of these additional factors.
  • The quality of home network connections plays some role in over 75% of households with poorly performing broadband connections; the quality of home-network connections is responsible for more than 25% of the connection problems in 20% of households with a poorly performing broadband connection.
  • Ofcom’s new measurement approach has identified that the types of services often used by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), including videoconferencing, thin client and cloud-based services, are more sensitive to end-to-end internet performance when accessed via residential broadband connections. Connections between the ISP’s network and the wider internet play a more significant role for many of the services likely to be used by SMEs.