Significant Effort Needed to Meet Superfast Broadband Targets

This week the European Commission updated its Digital Agenda Scoreboard, measuring progress with respect to the targets set out in the Digital Agenda. A new study completed by Point Topic shows that whilst nearly all households in Europe could access basic broadband services at the end of 2012, significant challenges still remain in delivering high-speed broadband to all.

The purpose of the Digital Agenda in Europe is to harness the internet and other digital technologies to drive sustainable economic growth. It includes two targets relating to broadband coverage:

• All households should have access to broadband of at least basic quality by 2013;
• All households should have access to high-speed broadband of at least 30 Mbps by 2020.

At the end of 2012 over 99.9% of households could have access to at least a basic broadband network – covering all fixed, fixed wireless, mobile and satellite technologies. Without satellite, 99.4% of households are covered by fixed, fixed-wireless and mobile technologies, and in general coverage is fairly consistent across the study countries.

There can be significantly more variation in the coverage of Next Generation Access (NGA) technologies, shown in the chart below. NGA services, which can deliver speeds of at least 30 Mbps, were available to 53.8% of households at the end of 2012.

In Malta, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, NGA coverage had already exceeded 90% at the end of 2012. However in France, Greece, Croatia and Italy, less than 25% of households had access to these high-speed services.

The study also shows how competing technologies are sharing out the superfast broadband market. Docsis 3 cable had by far the highest NGA footprint at the end of 2012, covering nearly 40% of households. This was followed by VDSL at 25% with FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) lagging behind at 12% coverage. The three technologies together add up to only 54% total superfast coverage because they overlap a lot, competing to serve the richer and more densely populated areas and leaving others underserved. Highlighting the size of the gap, only 12% of rural households were covered by NGA technologies in 2012.

Bringing NGA services to the rest of Europe is likely to require considerable effort and investment. But a a recent study by Point Topic suggests that the investment required could be much less than previously estimated.

Point Topic has brought together new research and new approaches to broadband needs and costs to provide more accurate estimates of investment requirements than have been possible before. {{The results suggest that the EU will have to invest about €82 billion to reach the objective of 100% NGA coverage}}. This is much less than is often suggested. For example, the European Commission generally quotes a range of €180 to €270 billion as the cost of achieving all the Digital Agenda targets.

The €82bn is dominated by the €52bn cost for reaching rural areas, although only 14% of the EU’s households are there. A further €22bn will be needed to cover the semi-rural sector. But a modest €8bn should be enough to bring NGA to all the 148 million households, 71% of the total, which make up Europe’s cities, towns and suburbs.

The high cost of rural coverage dominates the picture as far as individual countries are concerned. Of Europe’s big four, France, as the most rural, has the biggest investment need at €17.5bn. The UK on the other hand, although similar in population, needs only €7.5bn. Among the medium-sized countries Spain, Sweden, Greece and Ireland require relatively large investments. At the other end of the scale, countries which are relatively small, or highly urbanised, or both, have more modest needs, typically less than €350m, although that may still be high in terms of expenditure per head.

The €52 billion estimate also assumes that superfast investment will be capped at an average of €2,000 per household. “Most of that amount will have to be funded by the taxpayer in one way or another,” says Point Topic’s Tim Johnson “and we think that’s about as much as they will stand for. But we think that a large proportion of rural Europe will get wired up on that basis.”

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