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Superfast broadband in the UK

Over 95% of UK premises have access to superfast broadband (download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second, Mbps). Superfast broadband has been mainly delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) 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.

Focus has now shifted to rolling out gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband. As of May 2020, 14% of UK properties had access to full-fibre connections. Constituency broadband statistics are available on the Library data dashboard: broadband coverage and speeds.

What is gigabit broadband and full-fibre broadband?

Full-fibre broadband uses fibre optic cables to connect the exchange directly to each premises. It is currently the fastest and most reliable broadband technology.

Gigabit-capable broadband means any technology that can deliver speeds of 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 includes full-fibre technology, some types of cable broadband and potentially future 5G networks.

Government targets

Boris Johnson’s Government originally adopted a target to deliver “gigabit-capable broadband” nationwide by 2025. Industry stakeholders welcomed the Government’s ambition but warned that the 2025 target could only be achieved with urgent policy reform to address barriers that are delaying roll-out. Barriers cited include access to properties to install infrastructure, poor connections to new-builds and labour shortages. In October 2020, the National Audit Office cautioned that prioritising targets and programme delivery speed over other factors, such as serving those in greatest need, risked widening the digital divide.

In the National Infrastructure Strategy (November 2020) the Government stated it now aims with industry to deliver a “minimum of 85%” gigabit-capable coverage by 2025. The reduced target and 2020 spending review allocations (see below) have been described as a “kick in the teeth” for rural communities.

Government broadband policy and funding

The Government’s policy is that gigabit-broadband infrastructure will be mostly built by private investment. The Government and Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, have committed to policy reforms to promote a competitive market for the roll-out of gigabit-capable infrastructure.

The Government has allocated £5 billion to deliver gigabit broadband to the “hardest to reach” 20% of UK premises that will not be reached by commercial investment. In the Spending Review 2020 the Chancellor allocated £1.2 billion of that funding for the years 2020‑2025. Full details and plans for how and where this funding will be allocated have not yet been published. The programme will largely run as a series of procurements subsidising the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in defined local areas. The procurements will be managed centrally by DCMS.

There are several other funding programmes delivering gigabit-capable connections, including a voucher scheme to subsidise gigabit-capable connections to rural premises.

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. 

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