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April 11, 2016updated 05 Sep 2016 11:30am

UK broadband speeds: Are superfast and fibre targets for the future ambitious enough?

Analysis: The Government's superfast broadband target of 90 percent has been achieved and Openreach fibre has reached 25 million premises.

By Alexander Sword

The UK has reached its goal for 90 percent superfast broadband coverage, as figures from Openreach reveal that 25 million premises now have access to its fibre network.

Figures from thinkbroadband.com revealed that the 90 percent target had been reached about ten months late. When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition initially announced funding for a superfast target this was set at 90 percent to be delivered by the time of the 2015 General Election. It was later pushed back to the end of the year.

Ed Vaizey, minister for the digital economy, in fact announced in a parliamentary debate in March that the UK had reached this goal.

The Superfast Broadband programme to expand coverage has been orchestrated by Broadband Delivery UK, which has worked with BT to deliver the connectivity.

The Government also supported the Super Connected Cities voucher scheme which has subsidised provision of broadband to small businesses.

These milestones are of course steps in the right direction, but not the end of the road. New deadlines are already approaching for higher targets.

There are two questions here: are the targets ambitious enough and can they be hit?

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In terms of future targets, the Government is aiming for 95 percent superfast availability by the end of 2017, which thinkbroadband.com expects it to hit.

"If the current deployment rate continues we can expect to announce that figure in late 2017," said a statement from the company.

In November, UK Prime Minister David Cameron set out plans for a universal service obligation (USO) for access to fast broadband.

All UK citizens will have the legal right to request a 10 Mbps connection by the end of the current parliament. Whether this referred to upload or download speeds was not specified.

Ofcom’s Q1 2015 report found that average download speeds across the country had reached 22.8 Mbps and average upload speeds were at 2.9 Mbps, so as the Government says, this is simply a safety net.

The 10 Mbps pledge is focused on rural areas where much lower speeds are the norm.

rural

There will be several challenges in achieving this target. For one thing, the last 5 percent that will not receive superfast connectivity is simply not economical to reach even with government subsidies.

Companies such as ViaSat argue that satellite connectivity would be the best way to reach these areas, but with satellite broadband yet to see significant interest from policy-makers it is not clear whether this will be looked at as a solution.

In early April 2016, Ofcom launched a consultation on this target which will run until 23 June, so it may be some time before information emerges on how this goal will be achieved.

Whether the targets are ambitious enough is also an important question.

The Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE) is aiming to reach 100 percent coverage of the EU with broadband of 30 Mbps in 2020 and 50 percent subscription in the EU to broadband of 100 Mbps or higher, although obviously it is hard to draw a direct comparison due to differing geographical factors.

The importance of broadband to the economies of the future is widely accepted; a World Bank study found that low-income and middle-income countries experienced "about a 1.38 percentage point increase in GDP for each 10 percent increase in [broadband] penetration" between 1980 and 2002.

Meanwhile, in high-income countries this was around 1.21 percentage points.

An OECD study found that the adoption of broadband raises per-capita GDP growth by 1.9 to 2.5 percent, using data from 25 OECD countries between 1996 and 2007.

Although he stresses this is a personal view rather than the view of the company, Bill Halpert, CEO of KCOM, which owns and operates the infrastructure in Hull and East Yorkshire, thinks that the USO may not go far enough.

"Demand is going to continue to accelerate the way it has been.

"If you think about the development of consumer electronics and the kinds of IP solutions that we would deliver into the enterprise market and what ultra high speed bandwidth enables in terms of that economic activity, I would like to see nationally us driving a more extensive higher bandwidth than that."

Broadband Genie raised concerns that the deployment puts the UK at risk of falling behind other nations.

"BT is investigating using G.Fast technology to overcome some of these issues, but I believe we should be pushing for more homes and businesses to be connected to the more robust FTTH connection," said Rob Hilborn, Head of Strategy at Broadband Genie.

In its Digital Communications Review, Ofcom emphasised the importance of fibre to the UK’s broadband future.

Moves such as compelling BT to open up its ducts to competitors to allow them to install fibre (which BT says it does anyway) are aimed at reducing the UK’s reliance on Openreach to create competition between fibre technologies and BT’s investment in copper-based technologies such as G.Fast.

G.Fast allows BT to extend the range of frequencies available through existing copper networks without having to roll out costly fibre. BT claims it delivers speeds of up to 330 Mbps, which is over ten times the current UK average.

However, Ofcom and the fibre broadband providers will counter that only fibre-to-the-premises will be adequate to deliver the connectivity needed.

Fibre-to-the-premises as provided by operators such as CityFibre and Gigabit provides 1Gbps speeds already. While 1 Gbps connectivity for a household seems absurdly high now, there is no reason why consumption of data might not increase to require it.

The targets go some way, but some leadership from the Government on how technologies such as fibre and satellite can be used would be widely welcomed.

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