Lies, damn lies, and broadband statistics
Ofcom has released a report suggesting that the UK is leading its peers in the race to become a superfast broadband nation.
For various reasons it chose to measure the UK against France, Germany, Spain and Italy, rather than the EU28, the Nordics or the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, formerly known as the Soviet Union.
Ofcom found the UK has the highest broadband take-up (all types, by household), at 83%; the highest proportion of people to have bought goods online over a year (77%); the highest weekly usage of the internet (87%); and the lowest proportion of people who have never used the internet (8%).
Ofcom’s own figures for fixed connections, quoted in the report, give a more optimistic view: “France (is) still leading the EU5 with 36 connections per 100 people, followed by Germany (35 connections per 100 people), the UK (34), Spain (24) and Italy (22).”
Ofcom went on to say, “Eurostat data suggests that 83% of UK households had fixed broadband access at that time, the highest reported rate of household penetration among the EU5. Our own research suggests that 75% of UK households had fixed access broadband connections in October-December 2013.
“Take-up of superfast broadband, which is capable of providing speeds equal to or greater than 30Mbps, had reached nine in every 100 people in the UK at the start of last year, the highest in the EU5 ahead of Spain (6 in 100) in second place.”
When questioned on this, Ofcom responded, “We’re slightly mixing data here. 83% refers to households and comes from Eurostat (Q1 2013); the 9% superfast up figure is for individuals and comes from Cocom (Jan 2013). So we can’t combine the two.”
We also asked how many households could access broadband at more than 30Mbps, and how many received less than 2Mbps in Market 1 and Marlket 2 areas, ie those where BT has little or no competition. Ofcom can’t tell us because it doesn’t have the data.
Ofcom responded, “In order to get the picture across speeds, I’d suggest our Infrastructure Report Update 2013, which has this:
Broadband take-up: 72% of households (Q1 2013 – p.19)
>30Mbit/s take-up: 16% of premises (households and small businesses) have superfast connections/22% of BB connections are superfast (June 2013 – p.27)
<2Mbit/s take-up: 8% of connections (p.21)”
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says there were 26.4 million households in the UK in 2013. Of these, 29% consisted of only one person and 20% consisted of four or more people.
BT, in its quarterly report to 31 December, said it had “now passed more than 18m premises in the UK with our fibre broadband network and (is) making progress with extending the reach of fibre to rural areas.”
As that covers 68% of UK homes, that suggests that BT has completed its roll-out to “two-thirds” of commercially viable UK homes.
BT went on to say “Openreach achieved 339,000 net fibre connections, an increase of 38%, with around 2.4m homes and businesses now connected. We added 228,000 retail fibre broadband customers, up 14%, and now have around 1.9m customers.”
Regrettably, BT doesn’t say what speeds its customers get. Regular readers will know that BT’s “up to 80Mbps” service, based on fibre to the cabinet GPON/VDSL technology, is a bit of a pig in a poke. Actual speeds depend on distance between the cabinet and the premises, line condition, network congestion, content filtering, traffic shaping and other factors that degrade the service people pay for.
Other things being equal, line length is the main factor that affects broadband speed. Openreach keeps secret the average line length, but it is longer than 1km. Analysys Mason has calculated it at 1.704km. According to ThinkBroadband, that should deliver a download speed of under 15Mbps; for 30Mbps you need to live within 750m of the cabinet. BT speakers have earlier claimed the average length of the line between premises and cabinets is around 900m. According to ThinkBroadband, this would give a download spped of about 24Mbps.
Virgin Media also operates a fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) service based on DOCSIS 3.0 technology using coaxial TV cable rather than twisted copper pair wires between the cabinet and the home. Its latest quarterly report reveals that “Of all of our 4.4 million internet customers, 3.2 million, or 74%, subscribe to superfast broadband services of 30 Mbps or faster, an increase of 1.0 million in twelve months, including a 209,300 increase in Q4. We continue to see that nearly half of our new internet customers subscribe to speeds of 60 Mbps or higher, showing the strong, ongoing demand for faster speeds.”
Now we are in a position to judge whether Ofcom’s claims to be leading Europe are worth anything, even if true in the limited context it chooses.
Adding BT’s 1.9 million and VM’s 4.4 million gives us 6.3 million customers. BT said Openreach had connected 2.4 million premises, so we should add 500,000 LLU lines, giving a total of 6.8 million customers connected to a fibre-enabled cabinet. That is a fixed line penetration rate of 26%. However, if we consider that, according to Analysys Mason’s figures, less than half of those on Openreach lines will receive a service of 30Mbps or faster, the household penetration rate drops to around 17%.
If the Ofcom report is measuring progress towards the EU’s 2020 target of 30Mbps for all with 50% using a 100Mbps service, as it seems to be, then we are a long way short of achieving the EU targets, or even Ed Vaizey’s nebulous “best broadband in Europe”.