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Superfast broadband in the UK

95% of UK premises have access to superfast broadband, which the Government defines as download speeds of at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps). Superfast broadband has been mainly delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet technology, which is a part-fibre, part-copper technology. While superfast broadband is fast enough for most household uses today, growing data demands are pushing the limits of the copper-based superfast broadband infrastructure.

Policy focus has now shifted to rolling out gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband. As of September 2019, 10% of UK properties had access to full-fibre connections.

What is gigabit broadband?

Gigabit-capable broadband means any technology that can deliver 1 gigabit per second (1 Gpbs is equal to 1000 Mbps). 1 Gbps allows a high definition film to be downloaded in under one minute. Gigabit broadband usually means full-fibre technology but could also include cable broadband and future 5G networks.

What is full-fibre?

Full-fibre broadband uses fibre optic cables to connect the exchange directly to each premises. Full-fibre connections are capable of download and upload speeds over 1 Gbps. It is currently the fastest and most reliable broadband technology.

Government targets

Theresa May’s Government had a target to build a UK-wide full-fibre network by 2033. Her Government’s strategy for achieving this was set out in its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) published in July 2018.

Boris Johnson’s Government has adopted a target to deliver “gigabit-capable broadband” nationwide by 2025. Some commentators have noted that the shift from “full-fibre” to technology-neutral “gigabit broadband” is a watering down of the target although it does make the 2025 timescale more realistic.

Industry stakeholders have welcomed the Government’s ambition but warned that the 2025 target can only be achieved with urgent policy reform to address barriers that are delaying roll-out. Barriers cited include access to properties to install infrastructure, new homes being built without full-fibre and skilled labour shortages.

Government infrastructure policy

The Government’s policy is that full-fibre or gigabit-broadband infrastructure will be mostly built by private investment. The Government has committed to provide funding for areas that are not viable for commercial investment (see below).

The Johnson Government has said that a new National Infrastructure Strategy would be announced alongside the first budget (11 March 2020) and would set out the Government’s ambition on broadband.

Two areas of policy reform were highlighted in the December 2019 Queens Speech:

  • Legislation to reform access for telecoms providers to tenanted properties – the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill 2019-20 was introduced to Parliament on 8 January 2020 (see Section 3.1 of this paper);
  • Legislation on gigabit-broadband infrastructure for new build properties (see Section 3.3 of this paper).

Government funding

The Johnson Government has allocated £5 billion to tackle the “hardest to reach” 20% of UK premises, there are no details yet of how that funding will be used.

There are several existing funding programmes for full-fibre launched under the May Government, including two voucher schemes to subsidise full-fibre connections to rural premises and small and medium sized business.  

Is telecommunications a reserved power?

The UK Government has primary responsibility for broadband policy and coverage targets because telecommunications is a reserved power. However, the delivery of broadband infrastructure projects often involves local authorities or devolved responsibilities, for example, engagement with planning and highways authorities regarding street works.

Constituency broadband statistics

Constituency broadband statistics are available on the Library data dashboard: broadband coverage and speeds.

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