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This paper covers the Government’s policy on superfast broadband roll-out. The superfast broadband programme is ongoing but is in its final stages. This paper is no longer being updated by the Library.

Government policy now focuses on gigabit-capable broadband roll-out. For updates, see:

What is superfast broadband?

Superfast broadband usually means broadband connections with download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second (30 Mbps), although there is no single definition.

At a download speed of 30 Mbps it would take approximately 4 minutes to download a standard definition film (1 gigabyte (GB)).

Most UK superfast broadband connections have been delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) technology. This is a part-fibre part-copper technology.

Other technologies capable of delivering superfast broadband include cable broadband, wireless networks and mobile broadband networks in certain circumstances.

How widely available is superfast broadband in the UK?

According to Ofcom, 95% of UK premises had superfast broadband available as of September 2020, an increase of 1% since May 2018. In rural areas, 80% of premises have access to superfast speeds, compared to 97% of urban areas.

Most of the 1.5 million premises lacking superfast broadband connections are in rural areas (58%), but some urban and semi-urban areas are also difficult to upgrade.

The Library’s interactive broadband data dashboard allows users to view areas with and without superfast broadband at postcode level detail.

Of the premises that did have access to superfast broadband, 60% subscribed to a superfast broadband or faster service in 2020. There are many reasons why a consumer may not subscribe to a faster broadband service, including affordability concerns, lack of awareness of faster speeds, lack of need and/or lack of digital skills.

The National Audit Office reported in October 2020 that despite wide superfast broadband coverage, many people in the UK still experience poor broadband. This can be for a range of reasons, including factors within the home. Ofcom provides practical advice for improving broadband speed.

Superfast broadband roll-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.

The Government’s policy is to support the roll-out of superfast broadband to those areas not reached by private investment.

The superfast broadband programme was the Government’s main programme for supporting these areas from 2010. The programme is ongoing but is in its final stages. It is managed by Building Digital UK (BDUK), part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

How did the superfast programme work?

Under the superfast programme, the UK Government provided funding to local bodies in England and the devolved Administrations to lead broadband projects in their region These bodies established broadband delivery plans and procured contracts with broadband suppliers to build infrastructure to target areas in their regions.

Local bodies and the devolved Administrations were required to contribute funding from their own budgets and/or other sources.

Superfast programme progress

The programme has supported connections to around 5.9 million premises. It enabled the Government to reach its targets for superfast broadband broadly on time.

Some superfast programme contracts are still in delivery and many are reporting delays for various reasons. The programme has also been extended to cover more premises. The NAO reported in October 2020 that the Government now expects contracts under the programme to run until 2024, four years longer than originally planned.

Areas left behind

The superfast programme has largely delivered connections by FTTC technology, which is cheaper and faster to deliver but is less “future proof” than full-fibre technology. This resulted in superfast broadband being quickly and widely available to many premises. However, the NAO reported that the superfast programme, by prioritising coverage over speed, left the hardest-to-reach premises behind.

The latter stages of the superfast programme are now focusing on delivering connections by full-fibre or other gigabit-capable technologies.

Support for those without superfast broadband

Further support for areas without superfast broadband is now delivered through the Government’s policies on gigabit-capable broadband.

The Government has committed £5 billion to support delivery of gigabit-capable broadband to the 20% hardest to reach premises in the UK, starting with those that do not have access to superfast broadband. Vouchers are also available to support the cost of installing gigabit-capable connections in rural areas.

The Library briefing paper on Gigabit-broadband in the UK (CBP8392) provides more information on these programmes.

Universal Service Obligation (USO)

The UK-wide Universal Service Obligation for Broadband (USO) provides a legal right to request a decent broadband connection. This means 10 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed, up to a reasonable cost threshold (£3,400). The USO opened for requests in March 2020. For further information, see the Library briefing paper: A Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband.

Community-led schemes

Communities without superfast broadband can also 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.

Superfast broadband in the devolved Administrations

The UK Government has primary responsibility for broadband policy and coverage targets because telecommunications is a reserved power. However, the superfast broadband programme delegated the practical delivery of roll-out projects to local bodies in England and the devolved Administrations. Additionally, some policy areas relevant to broadband roll-out are devolved, for example, planning, building regulations and tax relief.

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