As 2020 certainly marked the year in the shift of subscribers’ attitudes towards faster, more reliable broadband services, the four major suppliers saw unprecedented gains in fixed line subscriber net adds. Although Q1 2021 began in a third national COVID-19 lockdown with most people still working from home, the sector seems to have stabilised, with operators shifting their focus firmly onto network expansion, introducing delayed price increases and awaiting the economic repercussions of Ofcom’s mandatory fairness agenda, comprised of End of Contract Notification (EOCN) and Annual Best Tariff Notification (ABTN). The quarter ended with overall broadband net additions remaining strong across the sector with BT seeing an estimated 48,000 retail subscriber adds compared with Virgin’s 38,500.
Despite lockdown restrictions being in place during the quarter BT seems to have overcome that hurdle as Openreach’s quarterly FTTP connections net adds reached a respectable 115,000, slightly down from 135,000 in Q4 2020. A total of 905,000 premises were connected to Openreach’s FTTP network on 31 March 2021, compared to 524,000 at the close of March 2020. Openreach’s full fibre rollout reached 4.610 million footprint achieving a record 2.0 million premises passed during the year. In Q1 2021, Openreach was averaging a run-rate of around 43,000 premises a week, and in the final week of March 2021 Openreach’s build rate surpassed 100,000. Take-up of BT’s consumer ultrafast (speeds >100Mbps) service equates to 21 per cent up slightly from 20 per cent last quarter.
Since the start of the pandemic in Q2 2020, Virgin Media’s DOCSIS 3.1 network upgrade which provides gigabit-capable speeds, remained relatively unaffected due essential works being undertaken outside of customers’ premises. As the demand for more robust bandwidth increased throughout the various lockdowns Virgin continued to reap the benefits of its DOCSIS 3.1 speed advantage which is available on 46 per cent of its entire cable network footprint, with average download speeds on offer of 186Mbps up from 174Mbps in Q4 2020.
Virgin saw their overall UK network coverage grow to 16,334,600 UK premises passed, up slightly from 16,257,300 at the close of 2020. The operator saw the first quarter end with headline subscriber net adds reaching a total of 28,000 compared to 43,000 in Q4 2020, along with 38,500 new broadband net adds (down from 55,000 in the previous quarter) to their broadband base bringing the total to 5,458,600. This is a solid performance given Virgin’s introduction of the 4 per price increase during the first quarter. Virgin’s Project Lightning build reduced to its lowest in five years to pass 80,000 premises compared with 115,000 premises in Q4, and 93,000 premises year-on-year, taking their cumulative Lightning build to 2.6 million premises.
On 12 March 2021, CityFibre announced that it would be extending its full fibre network to an additional 216 towns and villages completing the list of locations in its £4 billion nationwide investment programme. These new rollouts will reach more than 3 million homes and represent more than £1.5 billion in private investment. The nationwide build programme is expected to be substantially completed by 2025 and will address approximately a third of the UK market including up to 8 million homes, 800,000 businesses, 400,000 public sector sites and 250,000 5G access points. Their gigabit-capable network currently passes approximately 650,000 homes with ISPs Quickline and purebroadband joining ranks, bringing the total to 16 ISP reseller agreements.
Figure 2: Superfast/ultrafast share of total broadband market 2017 to 2021