Broadband speed: The race to become a gigabit nation

Written by
Sajni Shah
Utilities comparison expert
14 JUNE 2021
7 min read
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The UK is engaged in a race to become a ‘gigabit nation’ by 2025 – with consumers set to benefit from a key part of the plan to kickstart the economy.

The government had already set a target to improve broadband speeds in the first half of the 2020s – but that’s now even more important as the country looks to bounce back from the difficulties caused by the coronavirus.

The target is for all households to be able to access gigabit-capable broadband by the middle of the decade. That means a 1000 Mbps download speed (or 1 Gbps), with which a HD film could be downloaded in under a minute.

This could be achieved through a combination of full fibre broadband, cable broadband and the rollout of 5G.

The current average sits at about 64 Mbps – which means users can expect their broadband speeds to get more than 15 times faster than those they currently experience.
The UK aims to be at 1 Gbps broadband speeds by 2025 more than 15 times faster than the current average

The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) – the UK Government’s key advisory body on broadband – has commissioned a major report on how the country can make the next step towards its goal.

BSG CEO Clare MacNamara said: “The case for sustained investment in 5G and gigabit connectivity in support of the UK Government’s 2025 ambitions has never been stronger.”

Digital connectivity has never been as critical to our ability to navigate our new normal, socially-distanced lives as citizens, businesses and consumers, and the need for regulatory and policy certainty has never been greater.

“As connectivity will be one of the key facilitators of economic recovery, it is more important than ever for Government and Ofcom to incentivise and support investment. This could particularly benefit people living in sparsely populated and rural areas where network roll-out isn’t economically viable. For these communities, COVID-19 has only served to widen the digital divide.”

She believes there are big economic benefits to be had from boosting broadband speeds in the UK and added: “Potentially there is a £59 billion boost to UK productivity by 2025 if we reach nationwide full fibre. It is estimated that half a million people will be brought back into workplace with 400,000 more people potentially working remotely, reducing transport and housing pressures in cities and boosting local and rural economies across the country.”

The BSG’s reportMoving to a fibre-enabled UK: International experiences on barriers to gigabit adoption – looks at key lessons to learn from France, Italy, Germany and Sweden.

It points to four priorities if the UK is to become a gigabit nation:

  • Ensure consumers understand the benefits of gigabit broadband.
  • Provide incentives to make it affordable for consumers and businesses.
  • Use ‘digitisation’ to boost the economy post-COVID-19.
  • Move towards switching off the old copper network.
    Lucy Thomas, Corporate Affairs Director at TalkTalk, added: “Now more than ever, the whole country needs fast, reliable connectivity, so the race to deliver a full fibre Britain is on.”

Andrew Glover, chairman of the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA), called on the Government to help providers to drive forward the changes needed.

He said: “The industry has continued to rollout broadband infrastructure, and ISPA’s members continue to upgrade connections across the country. Support from Government to reduce barriers is key to the rollout of gigabit capable broadband.”

But Clare MacNamara says she is ‘very optimistic’ about the future – and that customers can feel positive about the changes ahead.

She explained: “Government has committed - and pledged £5billion - to get us to a gigabit Britain by 2025. BT has invested £12 billion and has accelerated (its target for upgrading) build from 15 million to 20 million premises by mid-2020s.

“The changes needed should include a future-proof, more reliable, resistant network with all the economic and green benefits it will bring. As well as Openreach, CityFibre and Virgin Media have invested significantly. Openreach’s target is to cover four million UK homes and businesses by March 2021, followed by an ambition for 15 million by around 2025 and then beyond. This is estimated to cost around £5.25 billion.

“CityFibre has a £4 billion private investment plan to extend fibre-to-the-home broadband to cover around one million UK premises by the end of 2021, before potentially reaching their ambition of eight million premises across 100+ cities and towns by the end of 2025 or later. Virgin’s £3 billion Project Lightning build will cover two million additional premises. Other investors like Gigaclear are also on board.”

‘Poor broadband speed is annoying, frustrating and embarrassing’

People without access to fast broadband face a battle to be able to work, shop, bank and communicate from home.

Freelance PR professional Rebecca Saunders had, until recently, been struggling with 5 Mbps broadband speeds – which were seriously hampering her ability to do her job.

She explained: “I manage a number of Facebook accounts for different businesses so I’m always uploading photos and videos.

“It could easily take me an hour to upload a three-minute video.

“As the whole country turned to conference calls and video at the start of lockdown I would spend the entire meeting trying to catch up as I would drop out, break up, scream and throw my phone across the room! Often, I would switch off the WiFi and use my 4G phone signal instead, draining my data allowance.

“I felt annoyed and frustrated, and very embarrassed during calls as it just looked very unprofessional when it cut out mid-meeting.”

After doing a broadband speed check, however, Rebecca realised that she was able to switch to fibre broadband and get 35 Mbps – a move that should solve her online work frustrations.

Dennis Relojo-Howell relies on his broadband connection to run Psychreg, a psychology, mental health and well-being website.

He’s often left ‘disappointed’ with his broadband speeds and explained: “I struggle to upload pictures to my website. I also have difficulties with Zoom meetings and uploading my contents on YouTube. Also, sometimes I will click on a link and there is long pause before the page loads.”

‘Britain’s backbone’: Broadband speeds cope with increased demand

The UK’s existing broadband network stood up to the test during the surge in home working. Fears had been raised that the nation’s infrastructure might struggle to cope when, from the end of March 2020, millions of Brits stayed indoors and became reliant on video calls and home broadband to carry on working.

Broadband providers were able to scale their provision to cope with new levels of traffic and average download speeds were just 2% lower at the end of March compared with the beginning of the month and upload speeds were 1% lower.

ISPA chairman Andrew Glover explained: “At the beginning of the lockdown, there was some initial public scepticism about whether the networks would be able to handle the sudden pressures of the UK moving to remote working. However, UK networks have been designed to handle changing demand patterns and UK providers were able to quickly respond to higher than usual daytime traffic.

“The last few months have shown how important reliable broadband is in keeping Britain connected and the resilience of the network has proven to be the backbone of the UK during this difficult period. Our members have been working hard to ensure businesses continue to operate and people can stay in contact with their loved ones.”

Analysis from Ofcom also showed that, while daytime usage did increase, it didn’t reach the levels seen during a typical evening peak and actually ensured that internet use was more even throughout the day. Netflix and YouTube reduced the bit rates of their streams for 30 days in order to ease the strain on the network from video content.

In fact, for some networks the impact of the release of video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on March 10 had more of an impact on download speeds than the coronavirus lockdown.

BSG CEO Clare MacNamara said that the crisis had shown UK consumers just how important fast broadband is. She added: “Not just from home-working, but also from the levels of streaming of TV and music, online gaming consumption and home-studying by parents and students. Around 60% of the UK has been working from home during lockdown. As an example, BT saw a surge in demand, with an increase in weekday traffic of between 74% and 116%.

“The UK is already one of the most advanced digital economies and during lockdown the providers have more than demonstrated that they can cope with the additional load on their networks. We saw an increase in landline and mobile call volumes and use of WiFi. Ofcom reported that 13 million adults used Zoom conferencing in April, nearly double that in March, and 20 times that in January.

“Employers saw increased numbers of connections into their corporate VPNs and conferencing services and they are already thinking about how they optimise use of these private networks or increase their provision of such services.”

Going underground: Speeding up the push for better broadband

The government is already looking at ways to speed up its broadband plan – including using underground sewer and water networks.

Utility firms might be asked to open up pipes, tunnels and ducts to save time and money in installing the infrastructure required to get the nation up to speed.

Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, explained:

“We are keen to explore how we can further reduce deployment costs and barriers, including by improving access to the UK’s passive infrastructure such as the networks of ducts, cabinets, poles and masts that deliver our utilities services across the country.

“Sharing the existing infrastructure of other telecoms and utilities has the potential to increase the speed and lower the cost of improving both fixed and mobile networks dramatically.

“It makes both economic and common sense for firms rolling out gigabit broadband to make use of the infrastructure that already exists across the country.”

Fastest internet speed in the world

A team of researchers has recently tested and recorded the world’s fastest ever internet data speed – which is capable of downloading 1,000 high definition films in a split second.
Academics from Monash, Swinburne and RMIT universities in Australia clocked up a speed of 44.2 terabits per second –
about a million times faster than the average broadband speed in the country.

The team used a ‘micro-comb’ chip – which produces an infrared rainbow of light that’s the equivalent of 80 lasers - and say their experiment could pave the way for faster internet across the globe.

Monash University’s Dr Bill Corcoran said: “We’re currently getting a sneak-peek of how the infrastructure for the internet will hold up in two to three years’ time, due to the unprecedented number of people using the internet for remote work, socialising and streaming. It’s really showing us that we need to be able to scale the capacity of our internet connections.”

He added: “We’ve developed something that is scalable to meet future needs.

“And it’s not just Netflix we’re talking about here – it’s the broader scale of what we use our communication networks for. This data can be used for self-driving cars and future transportation and it can help the medicine, education, finance and e-commerce industries, as well as enable us to read with our grandchildren from kilometres away.”

Broadband speed: How does the UK compare?

The UK’s broadband speed are currently quicker than those experienced in Australia as well as countries such as Italy, Austria and Mexico – but the country lags behind many international rivals.

Compare the Market’s Global Broadband Index shows that UK users experience an average internet speed of 55.14Mbps for downloads and 12.72Mpbs for uploads. The fastest speeds in the world are found in Singapore and, at 185.25 Mbps, are more than three times faster. However, Singapore and Iceland are both well ahead of the pack.

Broadband speeds in the USA are about twice as fast as those in the UK.

UK broadband in numbers:

Average monthly cost:
Download speed
64 Mbps
Upload speed:
14 Mbps
Time to download an hour of Netflix:
47 seconds

Broadband speed, top five countries:

  1. Singapore (185.25 Mbps average download speed)
  2. Iceland (153.3 Mbps)
  3. South Korea (114.31 Mbps)
  4. Hungary (108.78 Mbps)
  5. United States (107.28 Mbps)

Compare the Market’s information is backed up by data captured by other bodies too. Ookla monitors mobile and broadband speeds across the world – including analysing internet downtime.

Ookla Vice President Adriane Blum said that speeds have been consistent in the UK for the last year. She said that any improvements in the picture for the UK in the near future are more likely for mobile users.

She said: "As of May 2020, the UK ranked 47th for mobile and 45th for fixed broadband based on Ookla's Speedtest Global Index. The speeds behind these current rankings, average download of 36.38 Mbps for mobile and 67.17 for fixed broadband, have been relatively consistent over the past year. In the coming years, we expect that particularly on mobile speeds will increase dramatically with the continued rollout of 5G for commercial use."

The growth of superfast broadband

The proportion of residents with superfast internet connections in the UK (with download speeds of more than 30 Mbps):

2015: 42%
2016: 49%
2017: 58%
2018: 66%
2019: 74%

A need for speed: The internet as a utility

The recent lockdown has served to show how important the internet has become to modern life in the UK.

With shopping, banking and speaking to family members, all things people do online, there’s a growing call for a reliable internet connection to be seen in the same way as gas, electricity and water and be treated as a utility.
"Internet is a lifeline"

Melton Mowbray's Mark Parlby described the internet as a 'lifeline', especially for people such as his mother. He explained: "I don't think people realise how important broadband is these days.

"My mum is always on it - playing games with the family etc. Whenever she loses it, it's almost as if she's losing contact with the outside world".

Recent issues with speed and connection during lockdown brought this home. Mark explained: “Any time between 7pm and 10pm it could go off altogether and eventually you just give up and go to bed because you’ve lost your TV as well.”

The move to treat the internet as a utility is something that has reached the highest levels. The UK Government’s select committee on digital skills explored it in its report ‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future’.

The report concluded: “We agree with our witnesses who urged that the Government should define the internet as a utility service that is available for all to access and use. This is the bedrock of digital competitiveness.”

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has also added his voice to those who argue that internet connections should be treated as a utility.

He recently wrote: “We’re in a world where it is so much harder to get by without the web. And yet the digital divide won’t disappear once this crisis is over. The ever-quickening march to digitisation has become a sprint. We must make sure those currently in the slow lane have the means to catch up. Otherwise billions will be left behind in the dust.

“As Covid-19 forces huge change to our lives, we have an opportunity for big, bold action that recognises that, as with electricity in the last century and postal services before that, the web is an essential utility that governments and business should combine to deliver as a basic right.”

‘Visitors from big cities can only dream of our broadband speeds’

Residents in rural Lancashire proudly boast ‘the world’s fastest rural broadband’ - after taking matters into their own hands to improve their connection.

Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN, pronounced ‘barn’) is a community-led project which sprung out of a local volunteer group.

Co-founder Chris Conder – awarded the MBE in 2015 for her services to rural broadband – was one of the people who bought cables and dug trenches herself to connect farms that suffered from poor connections.

She said: “We were all on less than a megabit speed, totally unusable, often on dial up or expensive satellites, and nobody would help us.

“That was in about 2010. We launched in 2011. We now have over 7000 customers.

“We’ve just done a survey and our residents and businesses are all saying they don't know how they managed without it and how superior it is to anything else in the country.

“Visitors are amazed by the speed and reliability of the service, with millisecond pings and over 900mbps symmetrical on most people's computers. Speeds of over 400mbps on WiFi are not unusual with modern devices. Visitors from the big cities can only dream of this service.”

Chris said that other communities struggling with broadband connections can follow the example from B4RN.

“I would say get together, harness the local skills, and build it yourselves. Life is too short to waste it with a rubbish connection. Getting great internet increases your capacity for work and play, increases the value of your property, and building the network also builds community cohesion with everyone helping each other.”

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