Digital Connectivity in Scotland Contents

2Broadband coverage and availability

6.Broadband coverage is a modern utility: according to Which? nine in ten people regard it is an essential alongside water, gas and electricity.8 However, over half of the people Which? surveyed said that they had had a problem with their broadband provider in the last year.9 During the course of this inquiry we heard from several individuals and community groups about the poor quality of coverage in their area and the impact this has on them and their communities, particularly as more public services are becoming digital by default.10 For example, Southdean Community Council said:

Smart meters, mobile banking, downloading forms from the internet, emails, online planning applications, care of the elderly via digital services, are amongst examples of tasks that are easier elsewhere (some are impossible), and the lack of ability to properly participate in the digital age is leaving us increasingly disadvantaged.11

Current coverage in Scotland

7.According to Ofcom’s most recent data, 91% premises in Scotland have access to superfast broadband12 and ThinkBroadband’s latest figures show that coverage is now at 93.4% compared to 95% in England,13 a gap of 1.6%.14 Coverage has improved over the last few years, increasing by 18 percentage points since June 2015 (see Table 1).

Table 1: Superfast broadband coverage (30Mbps) in Scotland15

June 2015

June 2016

May 2017

January 2018

Access to download speed of 30Mbps or higher (superfast)

Scotland

73%

83%

87%

91%

England

84%

90%

93%

94%

Source: Ofcom Connected Nations: Spring Update 2018

These improvements have been delivered through a combination of commercial rollout and rollout that has been subsidised by Government funding.

8.There is a significant difference between coverage in rural and urban areas. Rural areas tend to have poorer coverage and slower speeds as a combination of higher installation costs and a smaller market of potential customers means there is less of an incentive for providers to invest.16 Ofcom’s latest figures in Table 2 show that the gap between rural and urban areas in Scotland is 38%, although the situation has improved over the past few years.

Table 2: Coverage of superfast broadband (30Mbps) by urban and rural premises in Scotland

2015

2016

2017

Urban

82%

90%

94%

Rural

31%

46%

56%

Gap

51%

44%

38%

Source: Ofcom Connected Nations: Scotland 2017

The Scottish Government pointed out that parts of rural Scotland are amongst the most difficult areas in Europe to deploy telecoms infrastructure.17

9.Academics specialising in rural broadband told us that broadband availability and community resilience were intrinsically connected. Rural economies are built on businesses, tourism and the property market—these all depend on connectivity because it can hugely influence a person’s decision to set up in, visit, relocate to or remain in an area.18 Professor Sarah Skerratt, Scotland’s Rural College, said:

There is a connection […] between broadband and housing and recruiting labour into that business sector. […] broadband does not sit alone as a piece of infrastructure. It enables and disables progression within the economy.19

10.Digital connectivity is an essential utility—everyone should have affordable access to a high-quality connection. Scotland’s broadband coverage has improved significantly in recent years, increasing by 20% since 2015 despite its low population density and significant geographical challenges. However, more progress needs to be made, with over 6% of Scottish premises still unable to access superfast broadband, according to the latest figures from ThinkBroadband. In a society that increasingly operates on a “digital-first” basis, we are concerned that a proportion of people in Scotland do not have access to a good quality and reliable broadband service, particularly in rural areas.

Communicating broadband coverage

11.One of the most frequent issues that the public raised with us during this inquiry was the gap between the broadband service they received and the coverage they had been told was available in their area. Whilst technical factors such as distance from the premises to the cabinet and the quality of the consumer’s technology mean it is inevitable that customers with the same provider will experience different broadband speeds,20 Which? highlighted that information was not as clear to consumers as it could be:

There is a lot more that both Governments and Ofcom could be doing to make sure that consumers have all that information so that they can make the right decision, whether around choosing a package or, when they have a package, where they are not getting the experience that they should be getting.21

There are many sources of information about broadband coverage and the different terms that are used to describe broadband speeds. Ofcom produces regular research on broadband coverage22 and runs applications which enable customers to check their speed at postcode-level. Local speed checker platforms are offered by independent organisations like Which? and ThinkBroadband, who also collate their own weekly coverage data for a consumer audience.23 Government rollout programmes and commercial providers give availability information by postcode on their websites and companies also use advertisements to promote broadband availability.

12.There are a number of different ways to describe broadband speeds:

a)Headline speed: this is usually used in adverts for broadband services and means that the speed is available to at least 50% of customers at peak time.24 The available speed is a median speed available at peak time and must be described as the “average”. This definition changed recently: before Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) introduced new regulations in November 2017, the advertised headline speeds referred to the maximum speed available to at least 10% of customers, and were preceded by the words “up to” instead of “average”.25

b)Point of sale speed: the estimated speed that a customer is quoted before they purchase the broadband service for the first time. It is an estimate of the maximum speed a customer will able to experience on their individual line and is often lower than the headline speed.

c)Measured line/sync speed: the maximum rate at which the line connecting a customer’s property to the street cabinet or exchange can operate. It is normally lower than the point of sale speed because of local technical factors such as line interference.

d)Consumer experience speed: the measured speed that the consumers actually experience. It is normally lower than the sync speed because of the quality of wiring in the user’s home, the number of devices they connect, a reduction in speed from using WiFi to connect a device to the household’s hub, and the number of other people connecting to the internet, particularly at peak times.

As the graph below shows, speeds normally diminish between these measurements.

Figure 2: Ofcom, Connected Nations 2016

In addition to different descriptions of speed, the UK and Scottish Government use different definitions of superfast broadband (the UK Government defines it as 24Mbps whereas Ofcom and the Scottish Government define it as 30Mbps), and some broadband programmes and providers describe only the technology being used to deliver the service, for example “fibre-enabled broadband”,26 which may imply a certain level of coverage without guaranteeing it.

13.The issue of communities being told they had access to “fibre-enabled”, whilst still receiving low speed, was mentioned by several groups that contacted us during the inquiry.27 Grace Ormiston, a local resident of Eccles, reported that their village still does not have access to superfast speeds, despite BT phoning the community and telling them they were entitled to superfast broadband.28 This is because, whilst their nearest cabinet is “enabled for fibre” which delivers a fast speed to the cabinet, their community is “too far from the cabinet to get increased connection speed”29 due to the fact that the remaining connection to residences uses copper wire (see Figure 3 below) which causes speed to drop quickly, particularly over longer distances.

Figure 3: Ofcom, Building a full-fibre future

14.The ASA recently reviewed how the term “fibre broadband” can be used in adverts. At present it can be used even if only part of the connection uses fibre cable, so it can refer to service where the final connection to the premises uses a slower, copper line.30 The ASA considered whether the entire connection should use fibre cable for an advert to use the term ““fibre broadband” but decided against this position arguing that customers “do not notice “fibre” claims in ads”.31

15.CityFibre explained that there is poor consumer awareness of what full-fibre is and how it differs from part-copper, part-fibre products that some providers such as BT use to deliver superfast broadband. They blame “lax advertising rules” and have criticised the ASA’s decision on how “fibre” is used in broadband advertising.32 CityFibre have been granted permission by the High Court to proceed with a Judicial Review of the ASA’s decision which is expected to be heard this summer (2018).33

16.When we discussed the ASA’s decision with Ofcom they suggested the issue might need revisiting, arguing that as full-fibre connections became more common it would become more important to distinguish between this and those that are only partially-based on fibre.34 They said terms like “fibre” are used most widely in marketing terms, but it is often unclear what precise speeds are available through this technology.35 The UK Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy committed to ensuring that the term “fibre” should only be used to describe full-fibre services.36

17.We were struck by the complexity that some consumers face in determining what broadband speed they should expect and recognise the frustration caused when this is not delivered. We welcome Ofcom’s work to refine how broadband speeds are measured, but believe that it does not go far enough. The consumer’s experience of broadband speed should always be the priority: we believe that all stakeholders have a responsibility to reflect accurately the actual available speed in all communications so that consumers fully understand what speeds they can get.

18.The language used to describe broadband services can be confusing for the consumer. We welcome the steps both Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority have taken to improve accuracy in communicating broadband speeds to customers. However, we believe it is misleading to use the phrase “fibre broadband” to describe connections that rely on copper technology which deliver much slower speeds. We recommend that the ASA revisit their November 2017 ruling that “last mile copper solutions can be referred to as “fibre broadband.”” As more companies offer full-fibre services it is important that customers know exactly what they are paying for.

Enforcing speeds

19.We explored with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) what recourse customers had when they did not receive the speeds that had been promised when they signed up for a service. In response, Brendan Dick, BT Scotland, emphasised that the customer should be told what speed they should expect at the point of sale.37 He also highlighted that Openreach engineers are often sent to resolve technical issues on a premise-by-premise basis.38

20.Ofcom’s existing codes of practice on broadband speeds require signatories to provide customers with a Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed (MGALS) at the point of sale (on request) and give customers the right to exit their contracts if their speed falls below a minimum level.39 In March 2019 these requirements will change to require ISPs to provide better estimates to consumers. They will have to reflect the slower speeds people can experience at “peak” times and providers must show the MGALS figures before sale (instead of on request). The changes will also strengthen the consumer’s right to exit: providers will have one month to improve speeds if they fall below the MGALS level before they must let customers walk way penalty-free.40

21.Whilst the ability to leave a contract without penalty is welcome, it is of limited use when there is no other broadband provider that a consumer can switch to. This is often the case for people living in rural communities where there is no commercial incentive for multiple providers to offer a service. We heard from a number of people who had felt they had no choice but to stay with their current provider.41 When we discussed the issues with Ofcom they admitted there were some shortcomings in the current right to exit scheme:

I would say that there is a fundamental issue here, which is that the right to exit, of course, does not do you a great deal of good if you want a service and you only have one provider.42

They said that improving the quality of information was crucial, and that the shift to fibre will make the service people receive more reliable.43

22.At the end of 2017, Ofcom accepted an industry scheme, proposed by the main ISPs, which allows consumers to claim automatic compensation for: delayed repair following loss of service, missed appointments, and delays with the start of a new service. However, this does not include compensation when speeds are consistently and substantially below those customers were promised while signing up to a service.44

23.We welcome the current “right to exit” policy which lets consumers leave contracts without penalty if the service they received is below what they were told they could expect when signing up to a service. However, this right only offers meaningful recourse if there is another provider customers can move to—which simply isn’t the case for many people in more rural areas. We recommend that Ofcom consult on introducing a right to automatic compensation for consumers in areas that are serviced by only one provider and whose broadband speeds fall below the minimum guaranteed level.


8 Q1

9 Q1, Which?, More than half of households experience problems with broadband, 2017 - this was a survey of 1,700 people

10 UK Government, Digital Strategy, November 2012

11 Southdean Community Council (DCS0005)

12 Ofcom calculates this by combining coverage data - the download speed available at every residential and small business property in the UK - with data from providers, which describes the actual broadband speeds for every active line in the country. This gives Ofcom a view of services that can be delivered to every home and SME, and of the speeds that are actually being received. (Ofcom, Connected Nations 2017)

13 Thinkbroadband, Local Broadband Information: UK Superfast and Fibre Coverage, accessed 13th July 2018

14 Ofcom and ThinkBroadband’s coverage figures differ mainly because of the timing of publication. ThinkBroadband update on a daily or weekly basis as needed, whereas Ofcom do quarterly data releases. They also use slightly different methodology - ThinkBroadband update their model as network roll-outs happen; Ofcom use data provided by broadband providers.

15 These speeds are based on the measured speed for the access line, which is the speed of the broadband connection to a premise, as recorded by the operator.

16 Scottish Government, Rural Scotland Key Facts 2015, 15 May 2018

17 Scottish Government (DCS0081)

18 Q88 [Dr Philip], Q92 [Dr Bosworth]

21 Q3 [Pete Moorey]

22 They publish an annual Home Broadband Performance report and Connected Nations coverage report - this now has biannual updates.

23 See ThinkBroadband “Local Broadband Information

24 Ofcom (DCS0119)

26 Grace Ormiston (DCS0022)

27 Aberdeenshire Council (DCS0095), Killearn Community Council (KCC) & Killearn Broadband Group (KBG) (DCS0057), Borgue Community Council (DCS0029)

29 Grace Ormiston (DCS0022)

30 Ofcom, UK fixed-line broadband performance, November 2016

36 UK Government, UK Digital Strategy, March 2017

41 Mr Stuart Smith (DCS0004)




Published: 23 July 2018