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UK full-fiber broadband coverage rises to 10% of homes

Roughly 3 million homes, or about 10% of premises in the U.K., have access to full-fiber broadband, according to media regulator Ofcom.

About 1.5 million more homes are able to subscribe to the broadband technology compared to the end of 2018, Ofcom said. Premises coverage rose 2% from September to the publication of Ofcom's report as network coverage became a key policy pledge during the U.K.'s December general election.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who gained a majority in the election, has promised to provide full-fiber access for all by 2025. Both Ofcom and culture secretary Nicky Morgan have previously said that other technologies — including 5G and hybrid gigabit-capable networks — could also help deliver so-called gigabit speeds.

Northern Ireland has the highest full-fiber coverage of any U.K. nation, with nearly a third of homes (31%) able to receive it. Wales was also above the U.K. average, with 12% coverage, Ofcom reported.

The update arrives ahead of the regulator's plans for investment in fiber networks for the five years from 2021, which it is currently consulting on.

British Telecom and Liberty Global PLC's Virgin Media plan to connect 15 million homes by 2025 and the end of 2021, respectively.

The "leap" in full-fiber broadband coverage signals how serious operators are in making up for time lost to regulatory and political headwinds, Matthew Howett, founder and principal analyst at telecoms research firm Assembly Research, said.

Next year will be crucial in determining the pace of rollout for the foreseeable future as Ofcom looks to provide some much-needed clarity on fiber regulation and investment, he added.

Sizing up other forms of connectivity, Ofcom revealed that the vast majority of U.K. homes, at 95%, can now access super-fast broadband, which offers download speeds of at least 30 Mbps.

Take-up of super-fast broadband packages has climbed by a fifth this year, with 54% of homes subscribing to these services for the first time.

The need for speed is also directly impacting broadband data usage, with average monthly use going up from 240 GB per connection in 2018 to 315 GB in 2019 — the equivalent of watching up to four hours of HD video a day.

However, some rural areas are still missing out on decent connections, according to Ofcom. An estimated 155,000 U.K. properties, or 0.5%, are unable to get acceptable broadband. This has fallen significantly from 677,000, or 2%, in 2018, due to the availability of wireless broadband services, the regulator said.

In terms of mobile networks, the latest figures show that 66% of the U.K. receives good 4G reception from all four operators — BT's Everything Everywhere Ltd., Telefónica SA's O2, Vodafone Group PLC and Three. And 91% of the country can get reliable 4G from at least one operator.

That still leaves 9% of the U.K. without 4G coverage, but that could change thanks to the government and industry's "landmark" agreement to connect these so-called not-spots, Howett said.

"The Conservatives made it a pledge to formalize the agreement within the first 100 days of government," Howett said, adding that "rural coverage looks set to improve even further, as a result."

As for next-generation mobile data, this year also saw the big four telcos launch 5G networks across a total of 40 U.K. towns and cities.