Discussions on access to broadband typically focus on the urban-rural divide, as rural parts of the UK often have poorer connectivity. However, there are pockets of poor broadband provision in many UK towns and cities, primarily in areas with lots of buildings that contain multiple residential properties, from converted houses to large blocks of flats.

To improve access to broadband, the government has a target for 85% of UK premises to have access to gigabit broadband by the end of 2025. Gigabit broadband refers to any technology capable of download speeds of 1,000 megabits per second. This is compared with around 30 to 80 megabits per second for older-generation broadband.

This Insight explains why these urban areas may have slow broadband and the proposals to change the law to address this issue.

What is the urban digital divide across Great Britain?

Data from Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, shows that areas with a high proportion of flats tend to have lower gigabit broadband availability. In January 2024, postcodes where over three quarters of premises were flats had 76% availability of gigabit broadband, compared with 80% in areas where less than a quarter of premises were flats. However, this understates the gap because flats are more likely to be in urban areas, which have higher gigabit availability on average.

For a more useful comparison, we can look at data only for urban postcodes. Urban postcodes where over three quarters of premises were flats had 78% gigabit broadband availability, compared with 89% in urban postcodes where less than a quarter of premises were flats.

The table below shows gigabit broadband availability for Scotland, Wales, and English regions for all postcodes and for urban postcodes. The largest gap is in the North West of England (22 percentage point gap in availability between urban areas with and without) and the lowest gap is in Scotland (6 percentage points).

Notes: Data covers residential premises in Great Britain only. It is rounded to the nearest percentage point, so gaps may not appear to match the availability figures.Source: Broadband data from Ofcom Connected Nations Spring 2024 update. Flats by postcode using calculated property categories for residential addresses in Ordnance Survey AddressBase (© Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government copyright and database rights [2024][AC0000813358].)
Gigabit availability in areas with and without flats: January 2024
Urban postcodes only All postcodes
Country or region Under 25% flats Over 75% flats Gap Under 25% flats Over 75% flats Gap
North East 90% 76% -15% 82% 74% -8%
North West 89%  67% -22% 84% 66%  -18%
Yorkshire and The Humber 92% 78% -14% 85% 77% -8%
East Midlands 91% 77% -14% 80% 75% -5%
West Midlands 93% 77% -16% 85% 75% -10%
East of England 88% 74% -14% 76% 72% -4%
London 93% 84% -9% 93% 84% -9%
South East 87% 69% -18% 79% 67% -11%
South West 85% 70% -15% 71% 68% -3%
Scotland 92% 86% -6% 72% 81% +10%
Wales 82% 68% -14% 68% 63% -5%
Great Britain 89% 78% -12% 76% 76% -3%  

Why is it difficult to connect flats to gigabit broadband?

To deliver a broadband connection to a home or business, broadband companies need the owner’s permission to enter the property and carry out works.

In practice the most efficient way for companies to build broadband networks is to deploy infrastructure (such as telegraph poles and cables) along public streets outside a property. They only make the final connection to individual properties when the homeowner grants them access by choosing to purchase broadband.

This process is more complicated in the case of multi-dwelling units (MDUs), such as apartment blocks, because the building is not (wholly) owned by the customer receiving the broadband service. In MDUs, broadband companies also need the landlord’s (or freeholder’s) permission to carry out the necessary works. This permission will usually be in the form of a written legal agreement called a wayleave.

Broadband companies have said landlords can be difficult to identify, unresponsive, or reluctant to grant access. An industry group, the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), has said that gaining access to MDUs is “the most problematic and time consuming” part of deploying networks.

Difficulty gaining access to MDUs means properties can be missed out when companies build broadband networks, even where they have deployed fibre-optic cables (used for gigabit broadband) in the surrounding area. Openreach (which is owned by BT and operates BT’s broadband network) has reported that there are over 800,000 flats in the UK where its fibre network is present in the street outside the building, but they cannot gain access to connect properties inside.

Can companies install broadband if the building owner doesn’t respond?

The government introduced a new process through the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act 2021 which allows broadband companies to gain access to residential MDUs.

The process, which involves going through the courts, can be used where a resident has requested broadband but the owner does not respond to repeated attempts to contact them.

However, it does not apply if the freeholder has refused permission or can’t be identified.

Is a general right to upgrade equipment needed to reduce the digital divide?

Openreach has argued that to reduce the urban digital divide the government should grant companies a general right to upgrade existing equipment. This would allow companies to enter a building to replace their old copper wires (used to provide previous generations of broadband and landlines) with gigabit-capable fibre-optic cables. Openreach argued that this would be an extension of a right that it already has to enter a property to repair existing equipment.

However, there is no industry consensus on this matter. During parliamentary debates on the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PSTI) Bill in 2022 the government rejected calls to introduce a right to upgrade, based on concerns around competition and property rights.

Concerns about competition

Most of the existing equipment inside buildings is owned by Openreach, whose previous-generation copper network covers 99% of UK premises. A right to upgrade existing equipment could, depending on how it is implemented, make it easier for Openreach to access MDUs than its competitors.

Baroness Harding, speaking about the proposal during the PSTI Bill debates, said that while it would be “tempting” in the short run to grant Openreach access to MDUs, “embedding an infrastructure provider’s monopoly … is never good for consumers in the end.”

Openreach’s CEO, Clive Selley, told the Financial Times in April 2024 that he would be “very happy” for the law to allow any broadband company to install full fibre in MDUs.

Concerns about property rights and safety

INCA, which represents smaller broadband network operators, has said that changing the law would be unfair on its members. It said they “have invested significant time and money in developing positive relationships with landlords so that their network builds can proceed within MDUs with the landlord’s approval”.

INCA has also argued that allowing operators to access MDUs without the landlord’s approval could impact building safety. Landlord organisations have expressed similar concerns. For example, the landlord advisory company Complete Technology Group told industry news website ISPreview this could increase risk to residents:

We see high levels of poor quality and unsafe full fibre installations in MDUs. Removing landlords’ ability to control access increases the risk for residents. There is a difference between landlords ignoring requests for access (which the law already deals with) and landlords insisting on access under reasonable conditions.

Andy Wells, Chief Operating Officer of Complete Technology Group, has said landlords’ concerns could be addressed if broadband companies worked together on a one-off installation, rather than each submitting separate access requests.

Further reading

Further information is available in the following Commons Library publications:

About the author: Adam Clark is a researcher at the Commons Library specialising in broadband, mobile, and cyber policy.

Photo by: (© By Proxima Studio – stock.adobe.com).

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