One of the undoubted success stories in the UK over the past few years has been the drastic acceleration in the deployment of gigabit broadband across the UK, and Ofcom expects the number of homes with access to gigabit broadband to hit the 50% threshold within the next few weeks.
A briefing statement by Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s group director for networks and communications, said while there was still a lot of work to do to bring faster connections to all parts of the country – indeed, it has continually warned of an enduring digital divide that exists within the UK, the majority of those affected located in the hardest-to-reach parts of the country – roll-out progress in recent years has been rapid.
Ofcom noted that just five years ago, only 6% of homes could get full-fibre broadband, but thanks to competition and investment from network builders, full-fibre penetration reached 42% in September 2022. The 50% threshold looks set to be passed in March, rising to more than 80% within the next two years.
“When firms compete to build better networks, that leads to more investment and innovation, so Ofcom has set rules for the wholesale broadband market designed to boost competition and ensure a level playing field among operators like Openreach, Virgin Media and a range of smaller, alternative network providers,” said Fussell.
“The numbers speak for themselves. These challenger firms are doubling their collective footprint each year, and together they expect to reach 11.5 million homes by the end of this year. Investment in independent broadband builders is strong, and expected to reach £17bn by 2025.”
Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom
Emphasising this latter point, Fussell added that the alternative networks to Openreach provide a vital part of the regulator’s strategy for better broadband and help form the engine room of the UK’s digital infrastructure.
Yet only weeks ago, the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA), the trade body for the UK’s independent network providers, criticised Ofcom for its indication that it was unlikely to prevent Openreach from introducing new wholesale pricing arrangements for its full-fibre services, known as the Equinox 2 offer. INCA said the scheme deliberately threatened competitiveness and made it harder for new entrants to compete in the full-fibre market.
Attempting to placate these fears, Fussell said healthy, effective competition also meant “keeping a close eye” on the UK’s largest broadband network provider to ensure it doesn’t use its market position to distort competition in the market.
“At the moment, we’re examining a new pricing plan from Openreach. We have invited views from across industry on this and will announce our decision by the end of March,” she stated. “We are gathering information on whether regular pricing changes, like those announced by Openreach this year, are making it harder for other firms to compete fairly.
“If we see evidence of any company acting in a way that distorts or prevents competition, we won’t hesitate to step in. Competition is the force that is driving better broadband for everyone. By promoting it, and keeping it fair and effective, we can help secure the UK’s digital future.”