Connected Nations 2020: How networks handled an extra demanding year

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Ofcom has released the 2020 edition of its Connected Nations report, providing insight into how networks handled an extra demanding year.

Whether it’s getting work done from home, or binging on Netflix. Checking in with phone calls to elderly relatives, or posting the latest TikTok trend video. Never has the connectivity we’re blessed with today been so appreciated.

Demands on fixed and mobile networks soared this year as a result of the pandemic. Ofcom notes that demands during the day increased but peak demand remained in evenings. 

Fixed Broadband

Average fixed broadband monthly data usage has increased almost 80 percent in two years⁠—now at 429 GB per connection, up from 315 GB last year. Ofcom says that, despite the increased pandemic demands, networks stayed well within capacity limits.

Superfast broadband is now available to 96 percent of UK homes, according to the regulator. This is up slightly from 95 percent last year. Ofcom estimates that around 60 percent of homes which can access superfast broadband now take it up.

As we near 100 percent availability for superfast broadband, the annual increases are naturally going to slow. The remaining properties will typically be in very rural areas. 

Ofcom expects there are around 190,000 homes and businesses (0.6%) without access to a decent broadband connection. An estimated 16,000 are eligible for a free connection under the universal service, with no costs to the customer (unless in excess of £3,400).

Matthew O’Neill, Head of Networks at NTT DATA UK, said:

“Constant connectivity has proved itself to be absolutely essential during this coronavirus crisis, keeping lines of communication open throughout the UK.

With remote working set to remain in place for many businesses into the New Year and becoming the norm, fast broadband speeds will be more important than ever.

The full-fibre rollout is gaining significant traction and is now available to 5.1 million homes (18%), up 2.1 million premises from last year. Ofcom notes this is the highest year-on-year increase recorded so far.

Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre, commented:

“The UK has made enormous progress over the last year building networks to offer households full-fibre connectivity. But now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. In 2021, we need to accelerate even faster.

As we prepare for a future outside the EU, we must work together as an industry to ensure every home, business, and public-sector site has access to the fastest, most reliable digital infrastructure. Only by doing so, will the UK be ready to compete with countries across the world as a leading digital economy.”

Gigabit-capable broadband is now available to 7.9 million homes (27%). This includes both full-fibre connections and the latest versions of hybrid fibre/coaxial cable networks.

Mobile Networks

Ofcom notes there has been an increase in voice traffic over the past year. This is perhaps unsurprising, given more people working from home and also relying on mobiles to keep in touch with loved ones.

While the pandemic ground most things almost to a halt – especially during the first lockdown as companies and employees rushed to put in place home-working arrangements – the rollout of 5G networks continued.

Ofcom says the number of mobile base stations providing 5G services has risen tenfold to around 3,000 across the UK (distributed as around 87% in England, 7% in Scotland, and 3% in both Wales and Northern Ireland.)

However, idiotic attacks on mobile towers – based on false 5G conspiracy theories – resulted in 170,000 cumulative hours of lost service. While there are no proven links between 5G and health issues, communities being cut-off from mobile networks and unable to contact loved ones – and the emergency services – pose a real and serious risk.

All four of the major operators – EE, Vodafone, Three, and O2 – claim to offer outdoor coverage to 98%-99% of premises. Coverage of the UK landmass ranges from around 79 percent to 85 percent.

Ofcom points to the Shared Rural Network programme as helping to boost landmass coverage by 2025. The agreement, made in March 2020, will see the four operators work together to improve mobile coverage in left-behind areas.

People living in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are expected to benefit the most from the Shared Rural Network initiative. Ofcom estimates that around 43,000 premises are unable to access either a decent fixed broadband service or indoor 4G coverage.

While we’ve quite rightly cheered healthcare workers and gave due recognition to supermarket staff helping us to keep food on our tables, not enough appreciation has been given to all those who’ve kept us connected when we needed it most. You’re all heroes, thank you.

You can download a full copy of Ofcom’s report here.

(Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash)

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