Broadband Crisis Affects Cities Too, Ofcom Reveals

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

It is not just those people living in rural areas that suffer from the scourge of slow broadband, study reveals

For a long time people living in rural communities have complained about their slow broadband line speeds.

But a new report from Ofcom suggests that many ‘townies’ could also be experiencing slow internet speeds in their urban cities and towns.

Postcode Lottery?

The Ofcom study found that the quality of broadband connections still varies greatly according to where you live in the UK, even within urban areas.

Despite the fact that most of BT’s commercial deployment of superfast fibre broadband tended to be concentrated in urban areas, the report found that some city and town dwellers are still putting up with “very low” broadband speeds. Virgin Media’s fibre network is also mostly concentrated in urban areas.

Ofcom examined 11 UK cities and found that lower broadband line speeds (2Mbit/s) occurred in disadvantaged areas or neighbourhoods. For example, it found that people in Cardiff and Inverness were twice as likely to be on a slower connection than those in London or Birmingham.

The report did find that the availability of superfast broadband networks tends to vary between cities, although it should be noted that unlike in the countryside, fibre availability is very high in urban areas (90 percent in most cities). Northern Ireland has the best coverage, and Ofcom found that Derry/Londonderry was the best performing city for superfast broadband availability at 99 percent.

Figures like these suggest that almost everyone in Northern Ireland’s largest cities has access to superfast broadband, but one-in-three people in Glasgow does not (only 57.8 percent of premises in Glasgow have access to superfast broadband).

Low Incomes

So what is going on? Why are some city dwellers still experiencing slow internet speeds, despite the billions invested by the likes of BT and Virgin Media? Ofcom admits that its figures are not consistent across the cities in its study, and many factors may influence the take-up and coverage of faster broadband.

splayfoil road fibre cabinetIt said that this variation between cities underlines the complexity of the challenges faced in encouraging take-up of superfast broadband in the UK.

Indeed, the Ofcom results suggest that, in many cases, low income may be a barrier to customers choosing to pay more for superfast broadband.

“Access to fast broadband is an important part of modern life, and a source of economic growth and investment across the UK,” said Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “We know from previous research that rural areas often lack fast broadband coverage, something the Government is helping to address with public funding.”

“Today’s findings suggest that the usage and availability of faster broadband also vary widely between cities,” said Pollack. “We will carry out further work in this area to help bring faster broadband to UK homes, whether in cities or rural areas.”

Urban Myth?

The truth of the matter is that most cities in the UK tend to be well provisioned with access to superfast broadband networks, and far better provided than rural areas. It is just that takeup of superfast broadband tends to be poorer in economically disadvantaged areas.

Also, the Ofcom figures do reveal that the poor figures in disadvantaged areas tend to be pretty close to the average takeup figures for the entire city.

BT meanwhile pointed TechweekEurope to its decision in January to invest a further £50 million into its fibre rollout in UK cities. That extra money is to be used to enable 400,000 additional premises in 30 cities that were not included in its original commercial deployment.

“This report shows that the majority of UK cities are very well served by fibre broadband as a result of BT’s significant investment,” said a BT spokesperson. “There is more to be done however and BT has identified a further £50m to further extend the availability of fibre across 30 cities. We will reveal which areas will benefit once detailed planning work has been completed.”

Virgin Media was likewise keen to stress its investment in urban areas.

“We are committed to bringing the benefits of superfast connections  to more people, from our ground-breaking Wi-Fi on London Underground service and free city centre Wi-Fi in Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham to superfast broadband connecting millions of homes across the UK,” said Emma Hutchinson, a Virgin Media spokesperson. “We continue to invest in our network and look for the right opportunities to grow.”

Ofcom meanwhile will publish its findings later in the year, and may include an assessment of any possible policy implications.

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