This page provides information about broadband to help constituents, including information about the different broadband speeds and technologies available around the UK and how constituents can get access to broadband or upgrade their service. It also provides information on resolving problems and getting compensation for poor service.
What is superfast broadband?
There is no single definition of superfast broadband. The UK Government defines superfast broadband as download speeds of at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps), while Ofcom (the UK telecoms regulator), and the EU define it as 30 Mbps. The Scottish and Welsh Government also use 30 Mbps.
What is ultrafast broadband and gigabit broadband?
Ofcom defines ultrafast broadband as broadband with download speeds of greater than 300 Mbps.
As the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport webpage explains, Gigabit broadband refers to a connection that can deliver speeds of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).1 Gbps is equal to 1000 Mbps.
What is an acceptable broadband speed?
Ofcom and the UK Government consider that a “decent” broadband connection for typical home broadband usage is one capable of delivering a download speed of at least 10 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 1 Mbps. Ofcom explains that these speeds currently allow multiple users to use the internet at the same time, including web browsing, video streaming, video calling and gaming, but states that these speeds will need to increase over time, and that Ofcom will review these speeds when 75% of UK premises have taken up superfast broadband.
This is the specification for the Government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband (see below). Opposition parties and rural advocacy groups argued for a higher standard when the specification was set (see the Library briefing paper on the Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband for further discussion).
What is fibre broadband?
Fibre broadband is a term used to describe broadband connections that are partially or wholly comprised of fibre optic cables and which may have widely varying speeds. Broadband speed is limited by the type of technology used and the distance travelled by the signal. Connections comprised of purely fibre optic cable or fibre optic cable and co-axial cable can achieve significantly greater speeds than connections which use copper lines. The main technologies and the connection speed they can achieve are:
- Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC): is the main technology used for superfast broadband roll-out in the UK. FTTC connections use fibre optic cables to carry the signal from the telephone exchange to street cabinets and then existing copper lines are used from the cabinet to the premises. FTTC technology can provide speeds of up to 80 Mbps. However, the maximum speed that premises can receive reduces the further away it is from a cabinet. Superfast speeds (above 24 Mbps) are typically available up to approximately 1000m from the cabinet.
- Full-fibre broadband: involves a fibre optic cable running all the way to the premises. Fibre optic cables can transmit more data with faster speeds and significantly less signal loss with distance compared to copper wires. Full-fibre technology can deliver speeds up to 1Gbps. It is also called Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology.
- Cable Broadband: this uses a combination of fibre optic cables to street cabinets and co-axial cables from the cabinets to premises. Co-axial cables experience less signal loss over distance compared to copper wires. Cable broadband can deliver ultrafast broadband speeds (300 Mbps) and the latest technology can deliver speeds up to 1 Gbps (DOCSIS 3.1). Most cable broadband in the UK is provided by Virgin Media.
How is superfast broadband being rolled out in the UK?
The roll-out of superfast broadband in the UK has primarily been led by private companies such as Openreach and Virgin Media. These private companies decide where to roll out their networks. The Government’s policy is to support the roll-out of superfast broadband to those areas not reached by private investment. To do so, the UK Government has been providing funding to local bodies in England and the devolved Administrations through the superfast broadband programme. The programme is managed by Building Digital UK (BDUK), part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Under the superfast broadband programme local bodies and the devolved Administrations draw up broadband delivery plans and procure contracts with broadband providers to build infrastructure to target areas in their regions. More information on the programme can be found in the Library briefing paper, Superfast Broadband in the UK (13 November 2018).
Superfast broadband in the devolved administrations
Telecommunications is a reserved power and the UK Government has primary responsibility for broadband policy and coverage targets. However, the practical delivery of publicly funded superfast broadband roll-out projects is led by local bodies in England (predominantly local authorities) and the devolved administrations. This means that the devolved administrations can set their own superfast broadband targets.
The devolved administrations each have projects to deliver infrastructure to premises not yet reached by the superfast broadband roll-out: Superfast Cymru; Superfast Northern Ireland; and Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (divided into two sub-projects, Highlands & Islands and Rest of Scotland).
The Scottish Government has a target to deliver superfast broadband (30Mbps) to 100% of Scottish premises coverage by 2021, under its Reaching 100% Programme (R100).
BDUK’s table of local broadband projects has a summary of contracted funding and connected premises so far.
Further information can be found in the Library briefing paper, Superfast Broadband in the UK (13 November 2018), Section 5.
What is broadband coverage like in the UK?
According to Ofcom’s infrastructure reports, as of January 2019:
- 98% of UK premises were able to access a download speed of 10 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps.
- 95% of UK premises had access to superfast connections (30 Mbps and above)
- 53% of UK premises had access to ultrafast broadband (>300 Mbps).
How many premises have subscribed to superfast connections?
Superfast broadband availability doesn’t mean that all lines are actually receiving superfast speeds, because this often requires consumers to subscribe to specific packages: Ofcom reported that in 2018, while 94% of UK homes and businesses were in areas where superfast, or better, broadband is available, only 45% of homes are subscribing to these services.
How do broadband connectivity and speeds vary in different areas?
Ofcom (the communications regulator in the UK) has a website and mobile app to check broadband speeds and coverage by postcode. The results set out whether standard, superfast and/or ultrafast broadband are available and what the highest available download and upload speeds are. Results can also be viewed on a map.
What broadband speeds are available in my constituency?
The House of Commons Library provides broadband speed and coverage data for constituencies and small areas, and postcode-level maps for UK constituencies on the data dashboard: Constituency data: broadband coverage and speeds.
What plans are there for broadband in my constituency?
Information about local publicly funded broadband roll-out projects is provided by local bodies on their websites: links to these can be found on BDUK’s table of local broadband projects.
Private companies’ broadband roll-out plans are not usually publicly available, but providers often have postcode checkers on their websites or may be able to provide further information on request.
What help is available for those with poor broadband?
The DCMS UK-wide Better Broadband Scheme provides vouchers to support an affordable broadband connection to homes and businesses that cannot access download speeds of 2 Mbps. An affordable connection is defined as one that costs the customer no more than £400 in the first year. Vouchers are used to fund a variety of technology solutions including satellite, 4G and fixed wireless. The Scheme is set to run until December 2019.
Vouchers are also available to support the cost of installing gigabit capable connections in rural areas and to small and medium sized businesses UK-wide. Residents can apply with businesses as part of a group project. Information about the schemes and eligibility requirements is provided on the DCMS gigabit broadband voucher scheme website. The Library briefing paper, Full-fibre networks in the UK (September 2018) provides more information.
The Welsh Government also has its own separate voucher schemes providing grants to fund (or part-fund) the installation costs of new broadband connections for homes and businesses in Wales, including extra funding for gigabit-capable connections.
Communities without superfast broadband could consider developing their own community-led scheme to bring fibre broadband to their area. The UK Government does not provide specific funding for these schemes but has published guidance and case studies that provide more information.
The private company Openreach also has a programme of Community fibre partnerships to establish fibre connections to groups of residents or businesses which are not currently covered by BDUK or commercial fibre plans. These partnerships will usually be jointly funded by Openreach and the community itself.
What is the Universal Service Obligation (USO)?
The Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband is a UK-wide measure to deliver broadband to those premises that do not have access to a decent and affordable connection. This means a connection that can deliver 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed (along with other defined quality parameters) and costs less than £45 per month.
The USO provides a legal right to request a decent broadband connection, up to a cost threshold of £3,400. Consumers and businesses will be able to request connections from 20 March 2020.
Residents and businesses are eligible for the USO if:
- they do not have access to a decent broadband connection (10 Mbps download speed, 1 Mbps upload speed and other specified quality parameters); or
- if the only service available that can provide the minimum criteria costs more than £45 per month; and
- the property is not due to be connected to a publicly funded roll-out scheme within 12 months; and
- the connection will cost no more than £3,400 to build (or the customer has chosen to pay the excess above that amount).
Further information is provided in the Library briefing paper: A Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband (June 24 2019).
How can broadband speed be improved?
Ofcom’s webpage on Practical tips for improving your broadband speed provides information about what factors can affect broadband speed, including the distance of the premises from the exchange and the number of people using the connection at one time. To improve broadband speeds, Ofcom advises:
- checking and upgrading browsing software;
- checking and upgrading routers and connections; and
- checking for interference.
If there is still a problem, consumers should contact their broadband provider to report the fault; the consumer’s broadband provider is responsible for fixing network faults.
Ofcom’s webpage, Broadband and landline faults and problems, provides advice about identifying and reporting network faults, as well as information about what providers should do to fix the problem.
Can mobile broadband be used for home broadband?
Constituents with good mobile coverage in their area could consider purchasing a broadband package provided by a mobile provider, depending on their internet use needs. Customers can get a mobile broadband connection: with a router from a wireless broadband provider; with a mobile broadband hotspot device; or by tethering from a smartphone.
Often 4G packages advertise download speeds higher than or comparable to some fixed-line broadband packages, but mobile broadband is generally less reliable and often has data caps. This article from broadband price comparison website Broadband Choices (Can I use 4G for home internet?, November 2018) summarises the pros and cons. Mobile coverage can be checked using Ofcom’s mobile and broadband checker.
What rules apply to broadband speed claims?
Ofcom has agreed with broadband providers voluntary codes of practice on broadband speeds for residential and business customers. The codes require signatories to provide customers with estimates of the speeds they are likely to receive at the point of sale. In addition, the codes give customers the right to exit their contracts, without penalty, if their download speed falls below a minimum level. The codes have been signed up to by providers who collectively serve 95% of home broadband customers: BT, EE, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media.
The codes have been revised several times so the relevant code in a given case depends on when the consumer purchased the broadband package. For purchases after 1 March 2019 a new broadband speeds code of practice requires providers to give more accurate estimates of speeds and a guaranteed minimum speed.
There are also rules about how speeds are advertised. When advertising a package, providers must state the average speed that at least 50% of their customers receive when the network is busiest (8pm to 10pm). These rules are regulated by the Adverting Standards Authority (ASA).
How to complain about a broadband service?
Complaints about a broadband service should first be made to a customer’s broadband provider. If a customer is unable to resolve a complaint formally with their provider, they may seek an independent resolution through an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme.
Ofcom currently approves two ADR schemes: the Ombudsman Services: Communications scheme and the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS). All communications providers must be members of one; a list of providers and their ADR schemes is available on the Ofcom website, ADR schemes.
The schemes’ websites provide guidance for customers and providers and include details of the companies registered with them, complaints that they can deal with, the steps that customers must have taken already before they get involved, how to complain, and what actions may result.
Can customers get compensation for poor service?
The firms that are signed up to the scheme are required to automatically provide customers with compensation for delayed repairs following a loss of service, missed repairs or appointments, and delays to the start of a new service. Details of the scheme and signatories to it are provided by Ofcom at: Automatic compensation: What you need to know.
Getting the best broadband deal and switching providers
Ofcom has launched a Boost Your Broadband campaign website that provides advice on checking broadband availability, choosing the most suitable service and getting the best deal from a provider. The campaign is supported by Which?, the consumer organisation.
Ofcom provides guidance on how to switch broadband providers. There are different procedures depending on the type of connection that a customer has or is switching to. Consumers should also consider implications of switching such as exit charges and whether other services such as landline or TV may be affected by a switch.
Do new homes have to have fibre broadband access?
New homes are not currently required to have a fibre broadband connection, however new buildings and major renovations with building applications submitted since 31 December 2016 must have the infrastructure required to support a superfast broadband connection (such as cable ducts).
A voluntary agreement between BT Openreach and the Home Builders Federation (HBF) was brokered by the Government in February 2016. It does not place any legal requirement on developers but the aim of the agreement is that “fibre-based” broadband is installed in new housing developments either at no cost to the developer or co-funded by the developer and Openreach. According to the HBF, its members deliver about 80% of the new homes built in England and Wales each year.
In July 2018 the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), stated an intention to bring in changes to ensure all new build developments where appropriate are connected with full-fibre that offers choice at the retail level for homeowners. The Government is analysing the feedback from its consultation on proposals to ensure delivery of gigabit-capable connections to all new build homes.
Further information can be found in the Library briefing paper, Full-fibre networks in the UK (section 3.3 New builds).
Further reading from the House of Commons Library
- Superfast Broadband in the UK, Commons Library research briefing
- Full-fibre networks in the UK, Commons Library research briefing
- The Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Broadband, Commons Library resaerch briefing
- BT and Openreach, Commons Library research briefing
- Utility prices: how are they calculated?, Commons Library Podcast
The Commons Library does not intend the information in these articles to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. We have published it to support the work of MPs.
You should not rely upon it as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein.
You should consult a suitably qualified professional if you require specific advice or information is required. This Library briefing provides information about sources of legal advice and help.