Despite worries that the UK’s communications infrastructure could not cope with the extra strain from millions of displaced workers using their home networks for work as well as entertainment, the UK’s fixed and mobile networks have generally coped well with demands, and in the meantime gigabit connections have increased markedly, says UK telecoms regulator Ofcom’s annual Connected nations report.

The study measures progress in the availability and capability of broadband and mobile services in the UK during the pandemic, and was published as the UK continues to address the challenges of Covid-19 when homes and businesses have come to rely on their phone and broadband connections like never before. Ofcom’s report focused on how the networks have performed during this period and how the availability of services has evolved.

The shift to more people being at home driving increased demand on broadband networks and access to services was increasingly undertaken on gigabit-capable broadband, which is now available to 7.9 million homes, 27% of those in the UK. Full-fibre broadband is available to 5.1 million homes (18%).

This was 2.1 million more premises (8% points) than a year ago and represents the highest year-on-year increase seen so far. Superfast broadband, defined as offering over 30 Mbps download speeds, is now available to 96% of homes, up from 95% last year. Ofcom estimates that around 60% of premises that are able to get superfast broadband now take up this service.

The fixed broadband networks have seen significantly more demand over the year, with average monthly data usage increasing almost 80% in two years. Ofcom calculated this to stand at 429 GB per connection, up from 315 GB in 2019, itself up from 241 GB in 2018.

As well as an increase in traffic, and a vast increase in network usage during the day, Ofcom said that peak broadband use was still in the evenings and has continued to grow, daytime traffic has increased significantly. Upload traffic also increased, driven by more use of video calling by remote workers using applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which have proliferated since the lockdown was first announced.

Yet despite the extra demand, Ofcom said that fundamentally networks had the capacity to meet these user demands and stayed well within capacity limits. Its research showed average broadband speeds only dipped slightly in March 2020, as much of the nation began working, learning and socialising from home.

Mobile coverage was also regarded as generally stable, and also successfully coped with the increased demands and changes in network traffic patterns during the lockdown period. There was an increase in call volumes and average call duration when the national lockdown was introduced, which networks successfully handled. The four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – each estimate that they collectively provide outdoor coverage to 98-99% of premises.

Their networks’ coverage of the UK landmass ranges from around 79% to around 85%. Ofcom stressed that the Shared Rural Network programme agreed in March 2020 will extend coverage beyond this by 2025. The number of mobile base stations providing 5G services has risen tenfold, to around 3,000 across the UK. 87% of these are in England, 7% in Scotland and 3% in both Wales and Northern Ireland.

Yet the Connected nations report also showed that a small but significant number of properties were still struggling to get connected. Ofcom estimated that 43,000 premises cannot access either a decent fixed broadband service, or good 4G coverage, indoors.

And reflecting those concerns, Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at online comparison service Uswitch.com, said that with millions of Britons spending much of 2020 working from home, the importance of getting fast, reliable broadband to as many people as possible has never been clearer, and yet the fears of a digital divide still abounded.

“Ofcom’s figures reveal just how reliant we have become on our broadband connections,” he said. “The average home churned through over a third more data this year than last, and data usage has shot up by 225% over the last four years.

“While the economics of connecting small rural communities to costly fibre cables will always be challenging, the digital divide is about more than just connectivity. It’s not enough for network providers to build the infrastructure and sit back, hoping consumers will upgrade. There’s a knowledge gap too, and Ofcom’s figures reveal that 11 million households which can get a superfast connection are still struggling on speeds of 12Mbps or less.”

Broadband speeds

Matthew O’Neill, head of networks at NTT DATA UK, added that it was encouraging to see a growing proportion of the UK experiencing the benefits of fast connectivity. However, he said the report made it clear there was still more work to be done to address the huge discrepancy in broadband speeds that still exists across the UK.

“Constant connectivity has proved itself to be absolutely essential during this coronavirus crisis, keeping lines of communication open throughout the UK,” he said.

“With remote working set to remain in place for many businesses into the New Year and becoming the norm, fast broadband speeds will be more important than ever,” said O’Neill. “Telco providers need to transform their operations to keep scaling up their ambitions – supported by government – to meet the skyrocketing market demand for faster connections.

“This process will be aided by consistent work to encourage fair competition in the sector, as well as putting in place regulations and penalties to minimise any delays.”

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