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Broadband market that ‘makes no sense’ tests UK leveling-up targets

The UK has nearly 5mn houses with more than three choices of ultrafast fibre-optic broadband, while 10mn homes do not have a single option, according to analysis that points to the inequality in internet infrastructure across Britain.

While some parts of the country are benefiting from high internet speeds, others have been left behind, according to research conducted by data group Point Topic with the Financial Times, leading to disparities in people’s ability to work, communicate and play.

The government has pledged to bridge the digital divide and level up the economy by extending fast broadband to all homes. Its manifesto outlined plans to deliver “full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025”, later revised to 99 per cent of homes by 2030.

But a land grab by network providers for regions where it is cheaper and easier to build has created a fragmented market that some experts say makes little sense and will culminate in competitive options being unequally spread.

The sluggish rollout of full-fibre technology by Openreach, BT’s networking division, led the government to stimulate competition in part by limiting the amount the former monopoly could reduce prices. That helped “alternative networks” — backed by billions in private capital — flourish.

Abandoned fibre-optic cabling on a roadside near Northleigh

Abandoned fibre-optic cabling on a roadside near Northleigh. The cost of reaching people in some of the most sparsely populated districts often exceeds £2,000 for each house © Neil Turner/FT

With companies overbuilding one another, by the end of the decade there are likely to be fiber lines to 80mn premises, way over double the 31mn housing stock, according to the analysis.

Gigabit broadband relies on fiber-optic technology and is more than 10 times faster than average superfast speeds. By 2030, if companies’ build plans remain unchanged, roughly 1mn homes predominantly in poorer and non-urban areas are likely still to lack fiber lines.

By contrast, around 3mn households, mostly in wealthier and denser regions, could be serviced by more than five fiber providers.

“If you look at companies’ stated plans — even dismissing some of them as speculative — you get to a market that doesn’t make any sense in terms of the degree of overlap,” said James Barford, an analyst at Enders Analysis, who believes many of these businesses will go bust.

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But as fiber building has ramped up, the gap between urban and rural rollout has widened. According to the latest government data, in January 2022, 70 per cent of urban premises across the UK had access to gigabit-capable broadband, compared with 30 per cent of rural ones.

“Every company wants to go for rich, over-educated packed areas with the best return on investment,” said Oliver Johnson, an analyst at Point Topic. In the years ahead, “there will be significant differences in choice — and therefore price — for urban regions compared to less commercially attractive ones”.

“Government policies don’t go far enough, not yet,” I added.

Hull, Belfast, Derby and Bristol have the highest availability of so-called gigabit broadband, while the Isles of Scilly, Orkney Islands, Copeland and Shetland currently have among the worst, according to Point Topic.

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The government has announced £5bn in subsidies to help companies reach the hardest 20 per cent of homes but only £500mn has so far been made available.

In a cob-and-thatch farmhouse in the south-west of England, a family of Ukrainian refugees is struggling to connect with relatives back home — not because of internet failures in the besieged region around Lviv, where they are from, but because of weak connectivity in Northleigh, Devon.

“It’s ironic that living in a bomb shelter they had better internet than we do here,” said Sue Woodruff, a local 61-year-old who is hosting the family. “The last thing they need is to be taken back to the medieval ages.”

Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon, said that while campaigning in the 2019 election she found the internet was the number one issue on the doorstep.

“We still have a lot of people on under a megabyte, the highest level in the country,” she said, adding that children “couldn’t work from home during lockdown”.

Saxby acknowledges the challenges faced by telecoms groups. The costs of reaching homes in some of the most sparsely populated parts of the UK are high — often exceeding £2,000 per house, compared with £200 in cities.

A sign on the road into Northleigh

A sign on the road into Northleigh. North Devon’s MP says the internet was the number one issue on her doorstep when she was canvassing in 2019 © Neil Turner / FT

Meanwhile, Westminster in London, one of the UK’s densest districts, provides an interesting window on the difficulties and bounties for network builders in cities.

“You’ve got all of these blocks of flats. . . the economic case must be one of the best in the country,” said David Wilkins, head of digital at Westminster council.

Still, back in 2016, the local authority had one of the poorest broadband speeds in the UK. The incumbent cable companies — Openreach and Virgin Media O2 — were initially reluctant to build in the area, put off by the onerous task of obtaining “wayleave”, or legal permission, to dig up streets from thousands of property owners.

Once those concerns were addressed — in part through developing a “citywide wayleave” for the council’s 20,000 properties — operators started flooding in, including G. Network, Community Fiber, Hyperoptic and VMO2.

Today, the borough has connected close to 100 per cent of its housing stock with gigabit broadband.

The government said more than 97 per cent of UK homes had access to superfast broadband, equating to more than 30 megabits per second, “which is fast enough for people’s current needs”.

It added that gigabit “coverage has boomed from six to more than 68 per cent in the last three years. . . and we remain firmly on track to hit our target of 85 per cent coverage by 2025”.

But the unusual make-up of the broadband market — comprised of two old cable groups and more than 50 “altnets” — has meant that even some rural areas have suffered from network providers overlapping, paradoxically slowing broadband rollout.

Saxby believes that it is because of a clash between government subsidies — often awarded to altnets — and commercial build plans, which have “gone further and faster than people initially expected”.

“When it comes to national infrastructure, there is an argument that if you can’t have real competition, it should be highly regulated or nationalized,” said Andy Cornish, a tech investor who lives in Northleigh.

“Fiber is so important for national infrastructure, maybe the government should take more control.”

Graphics by Dan Clark, Bob Haslett and Oliver Hawkins

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